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In a season where WSU ripped off 7 straight Pac-12 wins, what the heck happened to Cougs over final three games? One number speaks volumes

HOW COULD A season in which Washington State ripped off an unprecedented seven straight Pac-12 wins end not just with a thud, but a resounding whimper? It’s never just one thing when it comes to losses -- or wins. But one number stands out most.

On a Cougar offense that was a shadow of its former self in the final three games, for a ball control offense that looks to stress the open spots in a defense and use the whole field, Washington State's third-down conversion rate loomed large.

Over its first 10 games, the Air Raid converted 50.7 percent of the time on third down (72 of 142).   

Over the last three games, it plummeted to 33.3 percent (14 of 42). 

To put those numbers into context, a 50.7 percent success rate on third down currently rates No. 8 nationally, and tops in the Pac-12.

Conversely, a 33.3 percent conversion rate on third down ranks No. 115 out of 128 FBS schools.

Ouch.  So what changed?

The loss of Y receiver River Cracraft to an ACL injury in Week Nine loomed large indeed at the time, but it proved to be an absolutely massive blow over the final three games.  Taking away just one of four receivers in WSU's offense effectively shut down the Cougs' ability to move the chains when it counted most.

And that's really going to bother Mike Leach this offseason.

AMONG THE TENETS Leach holds most dear: the concept of next man up. It's one of two primary reasons Leach is so adamant about not releasing injury information or even acknowledging they exist (the other being it gives the opponent a list of vulnerabilities). WSU's head man once told me he hates the “reverse message” of injuries ... that losing a starter could allow any player to find justification for a loss is repellent to Leach. 

No, Luke Falk didn't shine his brightest over the final three games, neither did the Wazzu offensive line. The Cougar D, prolific in the bowl but woeful much of the previous two games, also was a major factor in how WSU finished.  But Wazzu's inability to replace an even adequate slice of Cracraft's production was the most glaring. Specifically in the Holiday, WSU's receivers were physically manhandled and did not work their way open nearly enough.

On an offense that utilizes an 8-man rotation and four wideouts in its base, the loss of one wide receiver shouldn't have had that much of an effect, not in the Holiday nor over the final three games. But it did.  Fixing it is has now become of the Cougars' top priorities for 2017.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • Slot receiver Renard Bell was one of the bigger stars in Thursday night Football this season. He'll be a second-year freshman in 2017 and competing against veterans like Robert Lewis and Kyle Sweet for playing time and a starting job -- it would be unfair to expect him to pick off where Cracraft, a senior, left off.  But his athleticism, work ethic and on-field attitude are all huge pluses for the Cougs headed into 2017.
  • Fox's Bruce Feldman reported Derek Sage is expected to join WSU as the Cougars' new inside receivers coach, and sources have told CF.C Sage has agreed to a deal in principle and is expected to join Leach and Co. in January.  WSU has not, however, officially announced the hire of Sage. Sage coached the Toledo receivers the past three seasons. First-year Cougar inside receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard left for Purdue after the regular season.
  • The Cougs were Washington State entered the Holiday Bowl No. 1 in the Pac-12, No. 2 in the nation in passing offense (370.8 ypg).  Falk on Tuesday threw for 264 yards vs. Minnesota.
  • Washington State, which managed just 12 points against Minnesota, entered the bowl game No. 14 nationally in scoring (40.3 ppg).

RELATED STORY: River Cracraft's sterling WSU career is over


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