Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Jed Collins

ALL HANDS on deck! Shore leave has been canceled. Set course for Martin Stadium Bearings 50 degrees North, 4 degrees West! That was the call as Washington State entered the bye week. The crew felt the sense of urgency. A time usually reserved for mostly getting healthy would be replaced by needed maintenance on the ship and a changing in its direction. Saturday night in Pullman we saw a new course being laid in by the Cougs.

Stat of the Game: Time of Possession. WSU 39:15, Oregon 20:45.  Run baby Run!

Players of the Game: Cody O’Connell and Eduardo Middleton
A part of me wants to give the game ball to offensive line Coach McGuire, but I will highlight two of his protégés instead. All year, the boys up front have been protecting No. 4, and this remains the clear No. 1 priority. And on Saturday night, there were rarely any hits or even pressure on Luke Falk. But the difference in the run game was illustrated by how well the Cougar guards climbed to the second level.

Creating a hole in the defensive line is a challenge, but big plays are made when you can get a hat on the second level of 'backers or safeties. On James Williams' longest TD run, Middleton sealed the hole and then climbed up to meet the LB, creating a clean window for Williams to be able to make one defender miss and go the distance. On Jamal Morrow's TD late in the game you saw O’Connell take the DT 10 yards down the line. A beautiful screen pass in the third quarter had both guards and center Riley Sorenson running down field.

Seeing the athleticism and the willingness to work from the offensive line gives me even more of a feeling WSU can control games with a balanced attack.

Season Changer: Hercules Mata’afa
Cougar Nation has been waiting to see the defensive line take a step forward and through three games the wait continued. With only two sacks, and few pressures, they had underperformed. But from the first drive to the last drive against Oregon a new level was seen from the defensive line -- and it all started with Mata'afa.

He has all the intangibles of a pass rushing machine. He lined up as an end, used a speed rush to beat the tackle up field and forces the interception. He lined up inside, where he ran an End and Tackle game -- where he picked the tackle only to create his own lane to the QB for a sack. In third quarter, he swam the guard and used the momentum to slip in between the guard and center, and then had the balance and explosion to track down Oregon QB Dakota Prokop in the end zone for a safety. What a game.

If Mata'afa can continue to ignite the defensive line, get penetration on both run plays and get home on pass plays, he could be the difference maker this season.

Great Energy to Start on Defense: Wazzu came out focused and ready for Oregon, showing a sense of urgency that had been lacking in the first three games. The Cougar D on Saturday was the first to strike. On the Oregon first drive they showed what was to come when Mata'afa applied pressure and the entire Cougar defense not only began swarming, but also lifting one another up. The message was heard early by the defensive line over the bye: We will be active and penetrating all game long.

Linebacker Frankie Luvu’s reputation continues to grow and as the season goes on, ball carriers are going to start looking out for Area 51.  The leadership of seniors Robert Barber and Shalom Luani are beginning to be felt -- after the play was made vs. the Ducks, the D was circling up to relish in the victory of each successful stop.

Great Energy to Start on Offense: The first play on offense was Gerard Wicks' explosive 22yard run, which spoke volumes. This is the new identity of the team this year in my book:  the Air Raid has a Ground Attack. The first WSU series played like this: run, pass, run, dump down, pass, pass, TD. The balance and consistency was meticulous as the Cougs marched down the field.

The best start on both sides of the ball CougFans have seen, and been waiting for, this season.

Atta’ Boy! DB Charleston White, PR Kaleb Fossum and WR River Cracraft
- Oregon RB Royce Freeman is a powerful runner and early in the second quarter down in the red zone, he barreled forward for what looked like an easy score. White met him at the goal line. White was giving away about 30 pounds but he was not going to let it happen on that play, not on his watch and not without a fight. He stood up a forceful runner and rejected Freeman from entering the promise land. Sure, the Ducks went onto score the next play, but White's stand was emblematic of something new on D.

- Fossum showed poise and great field awareness on a punt return when a Duck player ran past him, close enough to affect the catch but not close enough for a penalty. Fossum forced the contact and sold the collision for a penalty. It is not the acting job I am applauding, but the presence on the field to know the situation and surroundings.

- Cracraft sparked the second half off with a great 44-yard catch and run. But the play that caught my eye was a 5-yard quick out. Released off the line by getting the defenders hands off, he then took three steps, just enough to get the man on him to turn his hips to run, and then broke out for an easy 5-yard grab and first down. Cracraft controlled his momentum and tiptoed the sideline, staying in bounds and turning up field with a mission: earn more yards. He went right at the defender and took five more yards from the defense.  For me, these are defining moments -- when you begin to see a new personality forming.

Not so Special Teams:
The kickoff unit showed a lack of discipline on multiple occasions. Something can be said about the kick not being far enough into the corner, but seeing three Cougars following each other in a line is breaking rule No. 1 -- lane Integrity. Each man is given a lane, usually about five yards, and it is their responsibility to defend this area. But WSU had seven members of the kickoff team inside the hash mark. That’s a breakdown in understanding and a breakdown in coverage.

The unit also stayed on blocks far too long. Everyone gets blocked, it happens, but you must spin, shed, or ‘gator roll’ off the block and continue pursuit. Too many WSU players locked in and assumed someone else would make the play. The return for a score was a change in momentum and maintained the Ducks’ sense of hope, this could have been avoided with simple lane integrity.

Lastly, it is unacceptable to throw yourself at the feet of a blocker when you are the last line of defense. You instill the safety of this unit only to those skilled and tough enough to take on that responsibility, so when you are the playing the ‘safety’ position on kickoff return, you cannot throw in your chips.

Field Goal: Unacceptable.  The problem went either undiagnosed or uncorrected during the bye. Yes, there was some push by Oregon, but for a 25-yard chip shot the ball trajectory was just too low. And it almost feels like WSU is starting to play right into the reality of never kicking field goals. How do you criticize the call in the first half to go for it on fourth-and-three after that block? Does a field goal make it a three possession game and arguably out of reach, yes, but the truth is another miss or block would demoralize the entire team.

I am ashamedly getting comfortable with Mike Leach’s fourth down calls to go for it, after four games in a row with a miss.  It seems the best mathematical move. My greatest fear is thinking about some game down the road when WSU needs to rely on a foot to win a game, and kicker Erik Powell is battling the mental game. Powell was money last year, but last year is over and he needs to find a way.

I’m Not Mad at 'ya Cole Madison:
After Morrow’s TD run, the big right tackle ran down to celebrate in the end zone. I am not condoning a celebration penalty but I am encouraging the intent of his gesture. Madison was enjoying the game. And when you lose, everyone forgets to do this. So when I see an OL setting up to celebrate after he has a scoring block, I say ‘Enjoy the moment big fella!’ Take your picture and remember how exciting it is to be out there and to be rolling the Ducks!

Cool Hand Luke
You would think in a game where the ground game stole the show, Falk would have had an off night – but that could not be further from the truth. Falk has done nothing but, and in coming out of the bye week, taken on more and more of leadership role. You see him him on the sidelines discussing a route with a receiver. You see him get fired up when there is a special teams pop. You see him welcome the defense off the field after a stop.

He has become more than just the Cougs’ best player, he has become the team leader from what I’m seeing. His off the field presence does get overshadowed by his on the field performance, starting a game 10 of 10 will do that. The offense found its rhythm, produced few negative plays and took advantage of what the defense was doing. And it led to an amazing 36 first downs.

The shifts and motions, clear and crisp, adds dimensions to the offensive attack. Falk will break many records and be remembered for his big numbers, but it is obvious to me there is no one happier to see our run game finding its stride.

Final Thought: Just like after a loss, we should all remember that this is only one game.  (But what a sweet one it was). To give the Cougar Nation a solid performance at home to open the Pac-12 season is as good as it gets. The road does not get any easier, with Stanford on the road this week. But the Cougs were ready for Oregon.  And I think everyone around the Pac-12 can see there is a new team, and a new identity, taking shape out on the Palouse!

Go Cougs!
Jed Collins

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.


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