The query from Monday’s Spokane Cougar Club luncheon was as inevitable as the sun rising: What the hell happened with the special teams on Saturday?
After a nearly flawless start to Washington State’s 52-31 Homecoming win over Oregon State Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium – a game that saw Luke Falk throw a half-dozen touchdown passes to give the Cougars a 45-17 lead at intermission, the Beavers returned a kick-off for a touchdown and blocked at WSU punt.
Asked about the plays, Mele didn’t juke and he did not stutter step.
“We didn’t maintain our consistency,” he said. “We didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but we lost some of our concentration and a couple guys took it easy on a couple plays. Consistency is the key to good special teams play... (and) if you look at the 45 points we put up in the first half, we did that without a single turnover.”
Is the answer to put more starters on the special teams units? Maybe. There’s a balance to be had there, you don’t want to detract from other areas. Mele said he approached the start of fall camp looking to build his depth chart with between 30 and 40 players and as the season has worn on, a growing number of starters have dropped by his office, looking to get in on the action.
“We’ve had a few come and ask,” he said. “We work them out in drills and if they do okay there, we get them onto the depth chart and work them into games.”
Despite the two special team miscues against the Beavers, Mele said there’s a high level of excitement around the program and Sunday’s meetings and film sessions were productive.
“We had a good meeting about that last night and I think they’re ready to go out and fix things,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more that our players are stepping up and calling each other out. Mistakes are no longer acceptable.”
Since taking over as Washington State’s special teams coordinator at midseason a year ago, Mele said he has takes a straight-ahead approach to the job.
“With special teams you have a small sample size per game,” he said. “You may get 20 plays. You have to just go out and win every play, every time out.”
Mele said he’s been pleased with true freshman kickoff returner Tavares Martin (pictured above).
“He’s coming along well,” he said. “He’s already couple games where if he’d made the right cut he could have scored.”
Naturally, chief among the highlights Mele brought to the lunch was Martin’s 51-yard kick-off return to open the game. It was brought up during the Q&A session that it’s been a long time since the Cougars have had a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown (2003 for a KO return; 2005 for a punt return).
Mele only smiled.
“We’re aware of that,” he said. “We’re looking forward to changing that this week.”
Mele also highlighted several outstanding catches by Dom Williams and emphasized a key block the outside receiver made on a Jamal Morrow touchdown.
And he highlighted both Shalom Luani interceptions, including his 84-yard return for a touchdown with 3:45 left in the game.
Mele said the offensive game plan for the Cougars Saturday in Tucson will be pretty much the same as it is every week.
The success of the Cougar running game has been integral to the team’s success and Mele said, adding that the way Mike Leach’s offense works, with running backs and even wide receivers catching short passes, those valuable yards after the catch should really be thought of as adding to the team’s rushing totals.
"Luke (Falk) is really a fan of the running game and he’s the one who checks down to run the ball,” Mele said. “He’s been doing a good job making those reads.”
Defensively, Washington State has to be ready, Mele said.
“Arizona likes to use a run-oriented spread offense,” he said. “They concentrate on running the football and they have a quarterback (Anu Solomon) who can run. They like to have him run a lot of read-option and will throw the ball, but they run first. They have another quarterback (Jerrard Randall, 534 rushing yards) that we don’t know as much about.”