Will it be the darlings of the offseason, predicted to contend for Pac-12 North supremacy, or will it be the Gong Show that began Sept. 3 and continued right up to kickoff against the Vandals?
The thrashing of Idaho, coupled with the bye week, means Mike Leach & Associates can effectively start the 2016 season over. Wipe the slate clean.
The reality is that the first three weeks mean next to nothing unless you’re gunning for an FBS playoff spot. It’s been all non conference for the Cougs, so for psychological reasons we’ll call ‘em exhibitions — a mere extension of fall camp — that ended on a hugely positive note against Idaho.
The reality is that Washington State’s record in conference play remains unblemished. WSU still controls its own destiny in pursuit of its No. 1 goal this season: earning the Rose Bowl berth. And so for all intents and purposes, the 2016 season begins for WSU on Oct. 1 when the Oregon Ducks come to Pullman. The Cougs need to think of it this way: They aren’t 1-2. They’re 0-0.
The reality is that these (ahem, undefeated) Cougars have two weeks to catch their breath, devour a ton of film, learn from mistakes, and heal up their dings (yes, Gabe Marks, we’re talking to that ankle of yours).
But to get this new 2016 season headed in the right direction, the Cougs must — to borrow Pete Carroll’s favorite phrase — clean some things up. Among them:
Field goals: Placekicker Erik Powell, long snapper Lucas Gravelle and holder Kaleb Fossum need to figure out what’s going wrong. The Cougs have tried three treys this year — two in the 20s and one in the 40s — and have yet to split the uprights. That errancy proved devastating against EWU and Boise State and it will be even more unforgiving in Pac-12 play. Powell connected on a highly respectable 20 of 26 field goal attempts in 2015 (including 15 of 16 between 20 and 39 yards), so you know the ability is there. I was not all that concerned heading into the Idaho game. But heading into Pac-12 play, it's time to make 'em. Period. And to get on a roll.
Pressure: The Cougar defense posted a collective two sacks against one team that’s headed to the Big Sky, one that’s in the Big Sky and one in the Mountain West. And those three offensive lines are hardly the second coming of Lombardi’s Packers. More important than sacks, the amount of consistent heat the Cougs have generated on the QB has been somewhere between bracingly cold and lukewarm. It’s abundantly clear Cougar Nation took Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo, Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan for granted last season. It’s no coincidence the NFL came calling to all four. So what to do? More zone blitzes? Corner blitzes? I don’t have that answer, and the answer might change from week to week, but here's the bottom line: Alex Grinch needs to manufacture pressure in some way, shape or form. The Cougar d-line is simply not making enough plays. So Joe Salave'a and Grinch figure to be spending a lot of time together over the next two weeks before the Oregon game.
What else? Glad you asked. The Cougar defensive backs need to tackle better. The offensive line needs to come off the ball faster in the run game and at the same time, stop drawing flags. The WRs need to clean up some imprecise, sloppy route running. Luke Falk needs to throw the ball downfield more - there are caveats here, such as when the safeties are well back and looking to come over the top -- but there have nevertheless also been too many times Falk has had viable deeper opportunities and not taken them. And while the two special teams takeaways were like manna from heaven, the Cougar D needs to generate more turnovers.
Here’s what else we know about the Cougars’ new 2016 season:
1. Safety Shalom Luani won’t be sitting out the opener like he did vs. EWU. The guy is a game changer who makes the Cougar defense far more dangerous and smart.
2. Linebacker Frankie Luvu (pictured above), was a revelation against Idaho after sparing work previously. His speed and strength could make him a breakout performer when all is said and done on this year.
3. The Cougars’ run game has the ability to win games. Idaho is hardly the best test, but James Williams’ 9.0 yards per carry on Saturday is hard to ignore. If opponents are going to drop eight back, why not take what’s given up front and let Williams, Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and the Big Uglies move the chains until Falk sees some light and can ignore the check downs and stretch the field?
4. Two of the next three games -- Oregon and UCLA -- are at home against teams WSU beat on the road a year ago and the third is against a club, Stanford, the Cougs took the wire last season,
Leach said Monday on Bill Moos' radio show the No. 1 practice emphasis for the Cougs this week will be on the fundamentals. The Cougs will also focus on primary assignments, Leach said, with a decided need to stop hedging towards contingency assignments. As Leach is fond of saying, just do your own job. With the assistant coaches on the road recruiting the next two days, the first practice of the bye week will be on Wednesday. CF.C will be there and bring you our report.
FOR WASHINGTON STATE, the 2016 season begins now. The last three weeks need to be shoved aside, mere scrimmages leading up to a season that the Cougar faithful and many national pundits believed could be special. See you at the opener in sold out Martin Stadium on Oct. 1.