I cannot say enough good things about what Mike Leach and this staff have done with the Washington State football team this season. As difficult as it was to keep perspective after the Portland State loss, I remember writing how this season could be salvaged if they could just get a little momentum going.
Based on what I had seen in the spring, I truly believed this was a better football team than what they had showed that ugly Saturday in Pullman. And they started proving it the very next week on the road three time zones away at Rutgers.
The way the coaches, and by extension the players, were able to flush that Portland State game and move onto Rutgers is a huge reason why the Cougars are sitting at 8-4.
Leach and Co. have stayed true to their vision all the way through and Year Four was when we started to truly see the fruits of that unwavering belief.
The players are fully bought into what the coaches are preaching and it showed up in a number of big wins this season. No, it wasn’t always pretty, but we can clearly see the improvement on the field, on the scoreboard -- and in the win column.
2. "System" QB
I mentioned it a few weeks ago in my column focused on Luke Falk, but I think this past Friday really goes to show that it is not just plug and play when it comes to the Air Raid offense. Yes, the limited playbook and simple concepts can help a young quarterback coming in, but it still takes a special player to execute at the level Falk has.
Not to take away from Peyton Bender, who certainly showed flashes of the arm talent we had been hearing about, but the Air Raid offense is much more about command at the line of scrimmage and taking what the defense gives you.
There has to be a willingness to take short gains (and check to the run) knowing that you want to be in a position to go for it on fourth down.
Eventually, the defense will make a mistake and you can take a shot downfield, but it cannot be forced. Patience is also a part of good decision making.
3. The program
No matter what happens during bowl season, it is clear that the Washington State football program has turned a corner.
Improved facilities and a first class coaching staff have drastically improved the Cougars’ chances on the recruiting trail.
As those athletes continue to develop and get on the field, with more depth being built behind them, the wins are only going to become more consistent.
The players and coaches in the Cougar Football Complex are showing an unwavering belief they can reach the top of the Pac-12 (with the Stanford game a microcosm). The foundation has been laid and a process is in place that this season has shown can work.
Crucial tenets like depth on the offensive line and quality backups on defense are going to be key factors to success in moving forward.
The Pac-12 is probably the deepest conference in the country and is only going to get better, yet Washington State has positioned itself to be a program that will compete, to win, week in and week out.
Apple Cup thoughts
I have to admit that I was confident heading into the Apple Cup this past Friday. I truly believed headed in that Washington State -- even playing without Falk -- was a better team than Washington. But the Huskies were in control of the game almost right from the start. More importantly, WSU was flat on the road in a hostile environment.
The outcome was clear as early as the third quarter. The Cougars’ high flying offense never got off the ground and the defense, that has played so well the last half of the year, had started to resort to some of its old ways.
This was not the Apple Cup performance I envisioned when writing about the Cougar stop corps last week. I felt like this group could carry the load and help Peyton Bender in his first start. The WSU turnovers were a huge factor, but I also felt like the WSU front seven never really got going.
The defensive line and linebackers really struggled to stop the inside zone play and Myles Gaskin had more and more open running lanes as the game went on. This led to the back end of the Cougar defense becoming undisciplined and trying to make all the plays. They got caught with their eyes in the backfield a few times including a huge catch and run by Isaiah Renfro that led to a score right before halftime.
The Washington offense did not do anything out of the ordinary and yet it seemed that Cougar defense was constantly playing on its heels.
Obviously, seven turnovers were the name of the game. On the road, in a rivalry game there has to be an emphasis on ball security -- big plays can change the momentum so fast. Even with a halftime score of 17-3 it didn’t seem like Washington State was really in a hole until Bender in the third quarter threw what would be the first of two pick-sixes.
That being said, one big thing that stood out to me was also the lack of a running game. Whether it was the call from the sideline or Bender being uncomfortable changing plays at the line, this caused major issues because the Husky defense started dropping eight players into coverage.
Without the threat of a running game the defense lineman also became much more aggressive which led to a lot of pressure on Bender. Gerard Wicks had 25 rushing yards at halftime, but he also had only four carries.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.