At this time of the season, in a sense, you can throw a lot of stuff out the window because everyone knows where to line up, everyone knows the feeling of the intensity under the bright lights. It is the emotions during the game that so often separate the victor from defeated. The champion is the one who can control his emotions, direct his focus, and let his passion pour onto the field through proper execution.
1. Trap Game
It's the idea that one team is playing in a big game, and the other is playing in a game before the big game. Football demands your complete attention and focus; even the slightest of reservations will be exploited. For the past six weeks or so, it’s seemed like all anyone has been able to talk about for the Cougs is the matchup at the end of the season. It looked to me like this distraction finally caught up to Washington State on Saturday.
Colorado came out of the gates with a fire and intensity: ‘Our season will be decided today.’ And in the second half, Washington State looked like a team who felt its fate would be decided next week.
Colorado RB Phillip Lindsay showed a lot of will as he barreled through the Cougars 31 times, picking up steam with each carry. In the Apple Cup, a very capable back in Myles Gaskin comes to town with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. I firmly believe Gaskin while watching film of WSU-CU this week will be hoping he's asked to carry the same kind of load as Lindsay.
Meanwhile, WSU’s lack of urgency on offense was exploited Saturday as the Cougs came up short on several first downs. A hungry team in search for the victory is able smell pay dirt and earn the extra inches needed. A team playing for next week walks off the field with the yardsticks still in place.
An argument can be made the WSU coaches didn’t have the team focused well enough. But speaking as a former player, “rah rah” shouldn’t be necessary in big games. When dropped passes and missed tackles start piling up, it is not the scheme that is losing the game, it is the execution. Everyone has off days, but in the end champions don’t beat themselves. And the Cougs beat themselves this past Saturday.
The encouraging thought for Cougar Nation: there is no more trap, nowhere to hide, the Huskies come to town and all the marbles will be there for the taking on the Martin Stadium turf.
2. Confidence in points
Cougar kicker Erik Powell must come out and make his first kick on Friday, no matter the distance nor placement (left or right hash, or middle). Not only are the points essential but so too is the mental approach from a make. Too much is lost when the Cougs have to force fourth down attempts and come away empty.
The first half at Cu saw Washington State with momentum and the lead, but not command of the game. Missed kicks and red zone stops are huge momentum swings that come about as the game goes on.
3. Will the real Cougar front seven please stand up?
Earlier this season Washington State’s run defense was being talked about the media as possibly the best in the Pac-12. Colorado destroyed that notion in rushing for 250-plus yards.
Time and again at CU, Cougar defenders were over pursuing and falling victim to counter plays. And Cougar defensemen would engage and then not get off blocks, or just miss with arm tackles. When I went back watched the second half for a second time, I was left with one question: Who was hitting who?
The answer was Colorado, it was why it was able to pull away and it is exactly what the Huskies are looking at on film this week and planning to bring on Friday.
The Cougar front seven has overcome a ton of adversity this season. And yes, there were injuries at Colorado the Cougs were trying to deal with. But that is no excuse for how WSU ran out of gas in Boulder. A huge key to ending the regular season 9-3, and as Pac 12 North champions, will be in how/if the WSU front seven recaptures its swagger.
4. Good player beats good play call
The Buffalo secondary had length, athleticism and toughness. WSU’s receiving corps looked unprepared for all of it. Many of the passes that WSU had grown accustomed to completing were batted down (or dropped) and valuable yardage usually picked up was rejected. Colorado’s confidence in its secondary also freed up the ability to get pressure and hits on Luke Falk in the second half.
Colorado continuously brought a fifth rusher from the slot or up the middle, and it often forced Falk to throw before he was ready. The Cougars were still able to complete passes and move the ball, but in critical times it was the defensive secondary that won the majority of the matchups. And now, arguably a greater challenge comes to town with the Husky secondary.
I think the lessons learned by WSU receiving corps are 1) when going against lengthy defensive backs the ball must be attacked mid-air and when the only way to do what’s needed is by going through the DB, you must attack. Just running the right route and being in the right place will not always win the big games: playmakers have to go make plays happen.
5. Exploit an advantage
The second half on Saturday saw Colorado make adjustments. It is unlikely that Jake Browning will run QB draws like Sefo Liufau but expect the Husky offense to run some form of Wildcat, where a RB takes the snap and becomes the unaccounted for player in the formation.
A defensive scheme is generally not set up to defend the QB as the primary runner (as seen over and over in Boulder). Domination in the second half and superior adjustments at halftime are a good sign of points being won from the sideline. WSU needs to flip the script this week in that area.
6. No more tomorrows
I don’t want to overstate it, but this Friday for the Cougs is what dreams are made of! All year, Washington State has had one mission above all others – to control its destiny at the end of the season, become Pac-12 champions and go to the Rose Bowl. Well, the Cougs are right on schedule headed into the regular season finale. They control their own destiny. And it’s time to go punch someone in the mouth and take the Apple Cup.
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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