And poor clock management in the final seconds of the game is merely the tip of the iceberg. My big takeaway from Week Two was that WSU improved in all areas except this one: Coaching.
Here is my game critique for the men without helmets:
1) Seeing the defense not adjusting to a shift, or turning around and talking about a motion while the ball is being snapped-- these are things you expect during spring ball or even fall camp. Under the bright lights of Saturdays during the season, guys are supposed to be flying around, not double checking their wristbands. The fact the wristbands are needed is a sign in itself. Either the playbook is too big or it is not being communicated correctly.
The big uglies up front shouldn’t have to hear more than, "I have this gap or that gap" and then go do the dirty work. This dependence on a different form of communication could be seen all over the field in Boise on Saturday. Where on the wristband does it tell you what personnel group is supposed to be on the field? With a minute left in the fourth quarter, WSU should not be running a player out onto the field because they're a man short.
There is a field awareness among the players, but from the sideline one of the eight defensive coaches (including graduate assistants) has to see WSU doesn't have 11 on the field and one of the assistants has to call time out.
It is third-and-17 and WSU doesn't have one of its safeties on the field? Now, Charleston White raced onto the field late, without a call or a coverage and just played the game -- intercepting a ball in the end zone (pictured above). That right there says to me WSU is thinking too much and talent is being lost in communication.
2) Live by the sword, die by the sword -- this has been the aggressive coaching style of Mike Leach's offense and you either get on board with it or you fail to believe in it. I am not condemning going for it on fourth down deep in the red zone in a game that was supposed to be a shootout. You understand going in you will need TDs to win. But then you lose by a field goal and the decision to forgo easy points must come into question.
A QB sneak? In rewatching that fateful fourth-down play, that was the only thing the Broncos defense was prepared to stop. Even hurrying to the ball and trying to draw them offsides looked practical as the entire interior defense was falling forward on the snap of the ball.
One yard seems so easy, but when an offensive line is constantly in two-point stances and playing on its heels, you can’t just expect these guys to turn into the smash-face dirtbags (a term of endearment) it takes to get that one yard. And of course, WSU doesn't have tight ends or fullbacks to aid in the times it needs to ground and pound.
This all plays into the management of the game. The call was to have Luke Falk take his first snap under center of the game, and pick up a critical fourth-down conversion, behind a line that hasn’t come off the ball all game. From where I sit, that's too predictable.
3) Washington State beat Boise State in every statistical category. Unfortunately, that also included penalties: 10-3. At one point in the game it was 8-0! I don’t need to go back and talk about discipline off the field. I covered that last week. But when WSU starts drives out with first-and15, or allows a team to move the ball due to penalty, on-field discipline needs to come into scope.
WSU was out of sync as a team, and these misfires were spotlighted in the penalty category.
Coug of the Game/Surprise of the Game: Safety Shalom Luani
What a difference a day makes, and what an impact a player can have. There is still a lot of leadership needed on the defensive side of the ball, but Luani performed up to expectations and then some. He settled the defense after a rocky start, and gave life to the team -- twice!
The difference here is seen when you watch his execution. He gets the call just like everyone else, and is in the right spot, as you hope everyone else would be. But what separates Luani is his swagger. Reading and reacting is one thing, but being able to correctly predict, and then cause, the play is a whole other level.
For example, Luani allowed a receiver to "cross face" and then baited QB Brent Rypien into the throw that Luani intercepted. On offense, you see running backs juke and make tacklers miss. In the defensive backfield, a step one way or a hip twitch is the juke, and an unaware throw is the missed tackle.
Luani's presence made me feel confident that the WSU defense has its leader. And everyone’s performance is heightened when someone raises the bar.
Atta Boy: Tavares Martin Jr.
With a leap and catch, falling backward into the end zone for a TD, Martin made a very clear statement: Just trust me.
WSU has receivers for days. And because there is an 8-man-plus rotation, I don’t feel Falk ever really feels confident enough in hitting his drop and letting it fly to anyone not wearing No. 9.
Boise’s game plan was designed (successfully) around having WSU throw jump balls in one-on-one situations. The Cougars must test opponents' defensive backfields not in an act of desperation, but in due diligence.
On the TD to Martin, Falk finally let it fly down field and was rewarded handsomely when Martin came back to the ball and with a Bronco defender on his back managed to hall in a 50-yard bomb. This must be something WSU feels confident in going forward; letting the playmakers make plays. If the opponent is going to take away a player like Gabe Marks, that means there are one-on-one matchups that must be exploited elsewhere. Mr. Martin, I'm feeling ya!
Field goal block: Die a Slow Death
It is easy to forget the 21 other people on the field when the field goal kicker misses a try, but the beauty of this game is every piece must be functioning to have a good product. No one on offense likes lining up for field-goal protection -- the defense gets to tee off on you and NEVER after a good win has anyone reminisced about the great FG protection.
But in the special teams world, field-goal protection is defined by its blocking philosophy: Die a slow death.
That means every man up front must interlock and hold the line for the time needed to get the kick off. This effort is made easier with technique -- a technique WSU was lacking on Saturday nigh in Boiset.
Don't get lost in this play’s simplicity - snap, hold, kick. For the O-line it is one simple power step. But against BSU there was a breakdown, a lack of focus and attention to detail. Every man takes his one power step and solidifies the wall by shoving his knee into the back of the knee next to you, interlocking the unit as one. But the six-inch step to the right became a pick-up-and-drop-step, leaving a crease that will be exploited by a good player.
With leverage lost and no interlocking mechanism, WSU was pushed back and a hand got in the way of Erik Powell's critical field goal attempt. Was the kick low? Maybe, but the "block point" is supposed to be the line of scrimmage, not three yards into the backfield. So even if it were low, the play failed up front. This simple play, the one teams rep in camp and (generally) spend three periods a week focusing on, was the one play WSU took off on Saturday. And in football, the moment you aren’t going 100 percent is the moment you get hurt, either on the field or on the scoreboard.
I loved seeing Leach’s fire after the game. The end results this season so far have been two losses and that is unacceptable by any serious player or coach. “Our team needs to get tougher,” Leach fumed. It can be seen mentally (in the penalties) or in the plays themselves, but what truly concerns me is the physical toughness.
I appreciated seeing the grit Falk showed in the second quarter when he flew himself forward, going through Broncos defenders to get a first down. But then Wazzu's receiving corps dips and dives, losing yards or running out of bounds. I understand wanting to make a big play, but what has to be understood is the value of a first down and keeping the chains moving.
WSU contained Boise State’s run game in the beginning but as the game went on, I was watching the BSU running backs finish runs time after time, and so much so I began to question who was hitting who? Defense is nothing if it isn’t tough, and punishing ball carriers has to be what the boys in the box wake up thinking about. This is a grown man's game and every inch of the game is not given, but taken, from your opponent.
The critiques being made, the frustrations of an 0-2 start to the season, are coming to full boil. I must at this point remind fans: this is September football. The goal of these non-conference games is to prepare the team for the "real" regular season and ultimately to have the best team possible forn the nine Pac-12 games yet to come.
WSU is playing winning football in many categories, and ultimately this will lead to Ws. In Week Two, WSU's defense responded and settled down. They got pressure at times and took the ball away. While the Cougar offense never truly looked in on track, they have moved the ball and put up points. Special teams is a block away from making a game-changing return.
As a team, WSU has shown fight and resolve, coming back from behind in both games to put themselves in a position to win. If WSU can right the ship and turn this thing around, it will all start with the men wearing the headsets.
Toughness is a hard thing to coach and an even harder lesson to learn. This team's identify is still undetermined, and that means its leaders and coaches have not imprinted a persona to follow. Next week gives the Cougars a chance to find themselves and their leaders, before Pac-12 play begins after the bye week.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.