Did James Williams pick up WSU offense enough?

PULLMAN – Mike Leach says Washington State played harder and better against Idaho, but I see some issues that need to be addressed before the Cougs begin Pac-12 play in two weeks.

Washington State (1-2) notched their first win of the season by a margin of 56-6 over the Idaho Vandals (1-2) in their final non-conference tilt. The Cougs now enter their bye week before opening up Pac-12 play against Oregon at home.

There were a lot of positives to takeaway from the Idaho game, but almost as many negatives in my eyes.

One positive is the fact the Cougs completely went away from their typical offensive game plan featuring a lot of passing with a few runs mixed in. Against Idaho they ran the ball 35 times along with 36 pass attempts, totaling 228 yards on the ground and 281 through the air.

It’s unusual to see balance from a Mike Leach Air Raid offense, but it seemed to have panned out well on the scoreboard and that is all that really matters.

Second year running back James Williams stole the spot light on Saturday as he stormed through the Vandals defense carrying the rock 14 times en route to racking up 126-yards and one touchdown. He was an absolute monster on the field and made it look easy when he took handoffs from Luke Falk, trucking and breaking tackles play after play.

There was plenty of hype about Williams based on his play at practice and scrimmages. I think he not only lived up to the expectation, but may have surpassed that as he become the first freshman in WSU history to rush for over 100-yards in a game since the 2006 Apple Cup. Impressive stuff.

On defense, the Cougs looked a bit shaky in the first half, but played lights out during the 3rd and 4th quarters. In the second half, WSU’s defense held Idaho to 80-total yards of total offense on 35 plays while forcing five 3-and-outs (two times they pitched back-to-back 3-and-outs).

And what a performance from special teams. Aside from missing all three field goal attempts this season, every other ST unit seems to have their work figured out.

The Cougs scored two touchdowns on special teams against the Vandals for the first time in school history. One TD came as the result of Robert Barber blocking a field goal attempt. The ball ricocheted toward Marcellus Pippins who scooped up the ball taking it back 7-yards for a score. The other touchdown came after Dylan Hanser forced a fumble during kickoff coverage and Gerard Wicks finished the play with a scoop and score.

Punt and kickoff coverage teams, as well as the punt and kickoff return teams, look light-years ahead of where the Cougs have been during the Mike Leach era.

“The biggest thing about this (win) is that we played better” said Leach after the game. “And that’s the sole evaluation of any of it, you know – Did you play hard? How well did you play? We played better. We played hard. (But) We played sloppy, and then we got into a rhythm on all three sides simultaneously – so that portion we just need to be able to magnify for four quarters.”

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Though a big victory over Idaho was impressive and a much needed win for the Cougs, there are still some major flaws that I see with the team. Some of them might be factors that caused the Cougs to come up short in their first two games this year.

The defense nearly pitched a shutout, but it’s hard to give them a lot of credit after watching Idaho play in the mud all day.

One of the most noticeable issues for WSU is the play across the defensive line. In three games this season, the Cougs have only managed two sacks – both coming during the game against Eastern Washington. Zero sacks against Boise State and again against Idaho means that these guys are really having trouble winning their battles against pass protection. That seems surprising to me considering the size and speed that has been recruited for the D-line, and specifically defensive ends. The lack of pressure from the line also puts even more pressure on the defensive backs and other players in coverage.

Any quarterback with enough time in the pocket will eventually find an open target. With the talent at QB and at the receiver positon in the Pac-12, it is crucial that the Cougs find a solution to this issue.

Another alarming issue in my eyes is the timid play and hesitation from Falk at times. He looks uncomfortable and doesn’t seem to trust his arm.

Many of WSU’s passing plays are quick one-step hitters where Falk needs to pull the trigger quickly and trust his receivers. In the first three games I see a lot of hesitation and unwillingness by Falk to let go of the ball. There is absolutely nothing special that these defenses are throwing at him to confuse his reads. He sees the same coverages every single day in practice and lights them up all the time.

When game day rolls around I see a different Falk.

I often see him going through this progressions where he doesn’t like his first read, then looks for a secondary receiver and if he doesn’t see one, scrambles, hits a check down for no gain, or gets sacked. It’s unfortunate to watch because I don’t see him hesitating in practice.

Against Idaho, some of those scrambles and broken plays seemed to work out pretty well. Try that against Stanford in three weeks… I’d rather him not wait that long to find out the hard way.

I definitely think that Falk picked up confidence as the game moved along and eventually found a rhythm in the second half. But in my eyes, I’m waiting for him to get his full confidence back and make the throws that I see every day in practice.

Regardless of where the hesitation comes from, the reality is that his receivers are far better athletes than most defensive backs WSU will face this season. I think he needs to trust his guys, trust his arm, and trust that his receivers will make the tough catch if he gives them the chance.

Overall, I think this game was exactly what the team needed right now. They can build on this win, learn some lessons in the process, and get ready to turn it on because non-conference play is now done and over with. They need to put their 1-2 record behind them because it doesn’t mean anything anymore.


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