SPLAT: Anatomy of a WSU face plant; you have to go back to the days before the game to help explain stunning loss

PULLMAN -- Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp is a lock to play on Sundays next season in the NFL. But even his considerable talents are no excuse for Washington State's defense having allowed the wideout 206 receiving yards on 12 catches and three touchdowns. So how did this happen? You have to go back to the days before the game.

Aside from a few stops on the first EWU drive and then late in the game, WSU’s defense got picked apart from start to finish. 

They got spread out, missed tackles, got beat on the outside. They were almost always steps behind EWU’s offense all night.  At the end of the day, the Cougar defense gave up 45 points and 606 total yards of offense. That's a horrendous stat line.

Yes, Cougar defenders took some bad angles and didn't wrap up well enough at times.  But the bottom line from my chair is the Cougar D didn’t get outplayed. And they weren't outmatched against Eastern.

They got outcoached. 

The X’s and O’s were not in WSU's favor Saturday night. EWU’s offensive coordinators crafted an outstanding game plan – they did their homework on defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense, and they aced the test.

One of the more surprising things to me about this week's practices: the defense wasn’t keying Kupp on the scout team.  Here's what I mean by that:

Normally, when you face an offense that has a go-to playmaker, you practice keying where that guy is lined up every time he’s on the field.  Usually a high-quality scout player will wear a marked jersey so that the entire defense takes note of where he’s at -- and before every play.

Calls and adjustments are often made based on where the go-to playmaker is lined up. A shining example of this from last year and one that wound up paying dividends for Washington State, was how the Cougs keyed on Stanford's Christian McCaffrey.  During the Stanford game week last season, a WSU scout teamer in a marked jersey was focused on, all week long, by the Cougar D.

But I didn’t see any of that this past week. 

Hindsight is of course 20/20.  But I can't help thinking it might have prevented Kupp from a 1-on-1 matchup with true freshman safety Jalen Thompson (Kupps' 75-yard touchdown catch). And I really, really can't help thinking it might have made sure someone was covering the best player on the field as Kupp sat wide open in the end zone when Gubrud tossed him that easy touchdown.

Junior linebacker Peyton Pelluer noted after the game that there were some communication errors on defense. And that surprised me too.

Because from what I saw in fall camp and throughout this offseason, communication wasn’t at all an issue I detected.  The Cougar defense gelled last season – everyone was always on the same page. And I saw the same trend line in camp this year and in practice this past week. 

I know this defense, I played in it the past two years, and I know what it’s supposed to look like. Saturday night, the guys did what they were coached to do – but it just wasn’t good enough. I kept looking for adjustments to be made – and there might have been a few. But bottom line, EWU continually found the holes in the Cougar D and made WSU pay dearly for them all night long.

Maybe some of the newer players threw off some of the chemistry. With safety Shalom Luani out – and replacement safety Robert Taylor’s disqualification for targeting early in the second half – confusion, errors and mistakes reigned. Or, maybe everyone was just trying too hard and trying to help out, rather than just focusing on doing their own job and being assignment perfect.

With all that said, don’t count this defense out just yet.  I have ultimate faith in Grinch. I believe he and his defensive staff will make the correct adjustments.

Grinch is an extremely intellectual football coach, he knows where the defense went wrong, and he'll dissect the hell out of the film. Grinch will be ultra-dedicated to fixing what went wrong Saturday night.

Offensively, the pieces are there from what I saw – the execution just needs to be more consistent. The Cougs scored 28 points in the first half, and then had a terrible third quarter. Indeed, they didn’t find the end zone again after halftime until late in the fourth quarter when they were down 38-28.

Luke Falk said he got greedy in his postgame interview. And I think he might have gotten overconfident after the first few scores.  Once he felt the full force of the pressure on his back (the 10-point deficit) it was too late.  Falk looked for Gabe Marks late in the game as a lifeline, an outlet that could put the team on his shoulders and carry them back to victory. It didn’t happen. The offense floundered in that all-important third quarter and several players hit the nail on the head in postgame interviews -- they beat themselves in this one.

A 0-1 record doesn’t look good, it doesn’t feel good, and everyone wishes it were the other way around. EWU just put the Cougs to the test, and the Cougs flunked.  Mike Leach is now 0-5 in season openers at WSU. This time it was a 45-42 loss to Eastern Washington – their second loss to an FCS opponent in the past two seasons. It was an embarrassing defeat. Boise State will be just as, if not more, of a challenge.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that these Cougar players and coaches will have completely moved on from the loss by the time you read this. You learn from defeat and turn your focus to next Saturday’s game. You redouble and recommit. That’s the only way you can play big-boy football and win games. The other option, to sit there and mope and complain, is no option at all.

From experience I can say the confidence displayed by the Cougs at Sunday night’s 8:30 p.m. practice will be where it needs to be. The Cougs will be focused, and they know they can still put together a  strong season.  Behind the 8-ball headed into Boise?  Challenge accepted.

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