Costly lesson: Beat blitz or pay the price

BY THE TIME THE COUGARS lined up for overtime Saturday, the defense was already emotionally headed for the woodshed. Forget the three-point stances. We'll get the message and beat the traffic. The overtime sequence looked pretty much like this. Eleven guys on offense, followed by 11 on defense, waiting for the ax to fall.

And, of course, fall it did. I'm sure everybody feels bad but a 44-41 overtime dart to the heart is really tough on those of us who can't tear our eyes away. We can't take out our aggression by hitting somebody late, like the defense can. We have to sit around wondering why? How? Whadaya mean we're outa beer?

COMMENTARY
The Blame Patrol is out in force this week. Cougar offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller is the juiciest target. Great game plan (21 early points), the boo birds are chirping, but lousy adjustments (the first three offensive series in the fourth quarter were three-and-outs).

Pushing the 12th-ranked team in the country to change what it was doing, and scoring 41 points in the process, is no small feat. But the fact is that the offense suddenly froze in the fourth, setting off a meltdown that took place at an agonizingly deliberate pace.

The young and banged-up defense is in serious decline. It's very good once in a while. Adam Braidwood is playing hurt. Two starters were holy terrors last fall. In high school. For now it's up to the offense. It's not fair but the Cougar offense has to do it all, not only start but finish.

Because it initially hummed, only to falter and flutter and die, Levenseller's offense finds itself eerily akin to George W. Bush.

They both have the same dismal approval rating.

How many times have you seen this? The Cougs are 0-1 when a running back goes off for more than 250 yards. Has anybody done that, ever?

SADLY, DELVING INTO THE video, seeing what quarterback Alex Brink saw down the stretch, alternatives are not all that clear. I mean, what would you call? UCLA shifted into a 4-3-3, layering 10 defenders from WSU's tight end to the Cougar weakside tackle. The Bruins came in waves, blitz after blitz. With three and four WSU receivers running pass routes, Brink -- under pressure always -- had no time to look off receivers and shift to second and third reads.

Did I mention we've seen this before? Mike Price's first season. 1989. The Cougs won six of their first seven. In came Arizona with a second-half blitz package that kept the quarterback under siege. Washington State lost a lead and a game that day.

The Cougars never did pick up the blitz. They never did win another game that year. It was George Santayana, or possibly Tom Landry, who said that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. So pay attention; the Cougs won't win another game until they counter the blitz.

To say that UCLA was keying on Jerome Harrison in the second half is like explaining why robbers key on banks. That's where the money is. Harrison was easy money in the first half. It had to be everybody's guess that UCLA would gang up on Harrison and make the Cougs find another way.

It didn't happen. The first play of the third quarter signaled what would come. WSU guard Norvell Holmes pulled to lead a Harrison sweep right. You see the UCLA safety taking one, two, three steps in as the ball is snapped, cheating, anticipating. When the ball goes to Harrison, the Bruin DB abandons deep coverage and scrambles to the corner. The deepest defender on the field is suddenly in run support mode, forcing Harrison to cut inside where he is poleaxed by converging UCLA linebackers.

It was the first of too many second-and-longs. Antidote? The tailback pass comes to mind. That'd work once, anyway. Beyond that?

I'M NO HEAD COACH, AND I don't play one on TV, but if I were I'd go to the section of the playbook that has a fullback in it. The slotback, Michael Bumpus, was all but ignored Saturday, not because he's not a potential big-play guy but because all Brink had time for was to lock on his primary target, Jason Hill. Too often, for Brink, it was put it up and hope you don't break something while they're taking you down.

It's time for tinkeering. Tight ends who block and catch, receivers who break off routes and adjust to the ball, maybe a fullback or H-back who blocks first, delays a count or two and slides into a short pattern. Give Brink an option. At the risk of sounding like Les Richter, two words come to mind here.

Safety valve.

In the steady, predictable, fatal drone of Saturday's three-and-outs, there was only one really awful terrible crummy call from the sidelines. That came on third-and long-with less than six minutes remaining, the Cougs clinging to a 38-31 lead. Moments before, UCLA had turned it over on downs at midfield.

Thank you, Cougar defense.

The offense rode all that emotion to this: Harrison is thrown for a four-yard loss on first down. Hill catches a two-yard pass. This is where it got irretrievably worse. The Cougs on third and long sends Harrison in motion. Bruin linebacker Spencer Havner goes lateral, shadowing the Cougar tailback, pointing, shouting, sensing. Brink's pass finds Harrison but Havner beats a block and leads the stampede that dumps the Cougar tailback a distant eight yards from the first-down sticks.

That was every bit as predictable as Idaho going Republican. Momentum, momentarily snatched, slipped away. Incredibly, with less than five minutes to go, the Cougs were ahead and losing at the same time. The next tormentor on the schedule, Cal, must be savoring those images. The Cal Bears will bring the house down on Brink. The challenge is fairly obvious.

Beat the blitz or pay the price.

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