Fear and Criticism in Pullman

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Happy Sunday Cougs.  We'll skip the formalities after yesterday's steamroller loss in Salt Lake, as the Cougs barely got off the plane in their 49-6 disaster of a game.  And let's just get right down to it, shall we?

It's funny, the hope that can exist as a sports fan and all that comes with it.  A week ago at this time, after watching the Cougs came awfully close to putting a road game at a ranked opponent into overtime, you would have thought we WON or something.  There was a lot of "the Cougs might go 3-1 to close the year" and "we can still get to a bowl if we win out", talk like that.  And to be honest, from where we all sat a week ago, it seemed like some good things were coming and that somehow, this team had finally figured some things out.  Even Mike Leach said it was the most complete game they had played, the most complete four quarters of football they had played in 2012, even with the EWU and UNLV wins in the bank.  And when you looked at the stat sheet after the game, it was hard to argue against that statement.  The Cougs outgained Stanford (the only opponent WSU has actually outgained this year btw), and if you were to erase the pick-6 that Stanford had vs. Jeff Tuel in the third quarter, we might have not only gone to OT, but we might have seen the Cougs driving for the winning field goal in the waning moments!  

But then, last weekend's game was left in the rear-view.  All the talk from the last week that you heard from the team was that they were 1) tired of losing, and 2) done with moral victories.  As Sutra pointed out yesterday, in picking the Cougs to win by a healthy margin, was that it was the "Day to Win".  There was some decent improvement going back a couple of weeks ago as well if you wanted to go that far, to the Cal game where it wasn't as bad as it seemed especially from the QB position.  But then you saw the overall improvement in the Stanford game and many thought "Why not?"  In our Football Friday post, Longball and myself picked the Cougs to lose but by a very close margin, and Lucas even picked the Cougs to win by a field goal.  It sure didn't seem like a stretch just a day or so ago, did it?

But yet, here we are.  They barely got of the plane in an embarrassing, bottom-of-the-pit effort that was flat from basically the second drive of the game onward.  It felt all too familiar, like the BYU game from earlier this year where the first drive they move the ball, sputter, and then the wheels just come off?  But this was a game that was simply an epic collapse on both sides of the ball, from a poor job on the lines on offense AND defense, to poor tackling and mistakes in coverage throughout the rest of the defense, to an offense that was tentative and out of sync the entire day.

But what to do now?  You know what's weird, but the Cougs have been in this exact place just one year ago, believe it or not.  Anyone remember the Cal loss last year, on November 5th of 2011?  It was coming off a road game in Eugene, where the Cougs "only" lost 43-28 at Autzen.  On that day vs. the Quack, the Cougs actually OUTGAINED the Ducks on offense(!), and aside from some big special teams mistakes where Oregon blocked a punt for a TD and returned a kickoff for a TD, there was talk of  "turning the corner" and "we can play with ANYONE!" and all that.  The following week the Cougs headed to the Bay Area to take on a Cal team that was talented, sure, but just not very good, with just one conference win at that time.  This would be the week, many of us thought, that we would finally turn the corner and get that big win!

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But then Cal came out and kicked our collective asses back to Pullman in a 30-7 loss, in which Cal effortlessly strolled to a 30-0 lead into the third quarter.  The offense was out of synch and couldn't block anyone, the defense tackled poorly with very little effort, and it was just an awful loss.  Cal would outgain WSU 411-224 on the day, and it was where many marked the end of the Paul Wulff era in Pullman with screams of "Fire Wulff!" all over twitter.  It was clear to many at that point that Wulff had lost this team, and there was much anger that they could just sleepwalk into a game like this, a game many around here were convinced we would win after playing so much better at a ranked opponent the week before, only to see them come out with, shall I say, a corpse-like quality??

So what exactly is my point to all this??

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we have been here before.  Those of you screaming for Leach's head today and saying we would be much better off with Paul Wulff should look back to where things were almost exactly one year ago to the day and think about what your mindset was at the time.  Did anyone really believe we were on the right track the Sunday after that Cal loss in 2011?  DId anyone really feel at that moment that it would be in the best interest of the program to stick with the status quo, yet again?  Remember that attendance was at an extreme low, as the apathy of the losing was crushing the fan base.  People needed something, anything, to get excited about.  With the new stadium renovation and luxury seats to sell, the so-called "business" decision of letting go of Paul Wulff and bringing in a name recognition-type coach was praised by pretty much everyone not named Ed Cunningham or Craig James!  You would be hard-pressed to find someone in Cougville who was actually against the Leach hire a year ago.

Of course some of you will say that now, today, you would much rather have Wulff because you pretty much hate Mike Leach at this point.  That's understandable because Leach sure isn't endearing himself to the fanbase right now, is he?  He's not an easy guy to wrap your arms around right now with all the negative statements and frustrations that are coming directly from him, the head coach.  But remember one of the biggest criticisms about Wulff?  It was that he was always far too quick to throw the players under the bus while blaming the prior head coach in Bill Doba for not even leaving him a pot to piss in!  So let's not walk around and reminess about how wonderful the Wulff era was, because he was 9-40 as a head coach and he was hardly the most lovable guy around.

But you know what?  There is a bright side here.  Like I mentioned earlier, we have been here before, just one year ago in fact.  But the best part of being here before?  When all appeared lost, the kids got off the mat an FOUGHT their butts off the last few games of 2011!  Remember they actually beat ASU the week after that horrible Cal loss?  Remember they took Utah to OT in a game they coulda/shoulda won the week after that?  They ran out of gas in the Apple Cup, but the point is that when everyone appeared to give up on these kids, they said "EFF IT!" and went out and fought!  Who's to say they can't do it again this week?  Sure, UCLA is a HOT TEAM right now, with what, 100 points scored and over 1,000 yards of offense in the last two games combined!?  They are on a tremendous roll right now and look like a strong candidate to win the P-12 South at the moment after yesterday's 66-10 thrashing vs. Zona.  It would be beyond foolish to actually pick the Cougs to beat UCLA right now, but stranger things have happened.  I'm not saying the Cougs will win next week and that history will repeat itself, but I am saying that we have been here as a fan base just one year ago, and when all hope appears lost funny things have a way of happening.

What I'm wondering today however is, I guess for the first time in this early run of Mike Leach, is I'm asking myself if this thing is really going to work out in the long run.  One of the things I keep hanging my hat on with Leach is his record as a head coach coming in to 2012.  He averaged 8.4 wins per season at Texas Tech, a place viewed similarly to Pullman in regards to being a difficult place to recruit to and being off the beaten path a bit compared to their other in-state school like Texas.  Leach in Pullman seemed like a great fit, where the whimsical "weirdness" might play well ala Mike Price at WSU.  But one thing I'm starting to wonder is if the Air Raid will really work here over the long tem?

Now let me first make this perfectly clear – I'm not a smartfootball.com guy.  I am not a guru of the Air Raid, so I can't break it down for you play-by-play like the fine work they do at CougCenter (which, by the way, they are doing extraordinary work these days!).  But one question I have about this offense for the first time came to be, believe it or not, based on some things that Rick Neuheisel was saying in a radio interview this week.

Neuheisel was asked why is it that Oregon is so damn successful in doing what they do on offense, why does it work so well every single week?  Neuheisel was quick to point out their incredible team speed at the offensive skill positions, and that they are truly a gifted team in that regard.  But he also said that while true with Oregon, if you look around the Pac-12, everyone has those fast skill guys from California.  And if you were to go school by school and look at the depth charts, you would see a lot of the skill/speed/burner types out west are those fast kids from Cali, with some obvious exceptions of course (Bishop Sankey, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams would all beg to differ!).  But the point was that out west, everyone in a BCS conference has speed, and even the Boise State's of the world are able to find BCS-level athletes.  But what makes Oregon so special is not just their scheme that is a complete nightmare to defend, even for the top-shelf 5-star specials like USC, but what Oregon asks their offensive line to do is NOT very special!

Think about a typical read-option play for a moment in your head.  You can picture Marcus Mariota in the shotgun, with Kenjon Barner on one side or the other in the backfield.  Mariota gets the snap, and he literally can do about 5 different things at that moment, things you have to account for and react to on defense.  He can 1) hand it off, 2) keep it, 3) fake the handoff and pitch it on the option, 4) throw a quick bubble screen out of the play-action, or 5) just pull it out of there and throw it down the field.  So yeah, there are a lot of things the defense has to account for on every single play.  Mix in the fact that Oregon plays their offense on fast-forward and the fatigue starts to set in, and it's just crazy the kind of numbers they can put up!  

But one aspect that doesn't get much talk?  Watch Oregon's offensive line.  What do they do?  Well, they basically do the same thing about 90% of the time, and that's just simply fire off at the snap of the ball and go out and block someone moving forward!  They aren't sitting back in the rocking chair in super wide splits, forced to drop backwards and pass block on 60 pass attempts a game, trying to stop ferocious 280-pounders who can run a 4.5 off the edge.  Instead, they just block their guy, play after play after play, focusing on winning their individual battle and doing what linemen want do, which is fire off moving forward.  They'll trap and pull and do all those things that offensive linemen do at that level, but the theme of what an Oregon offensive linemen has to do is the same for the vast majority of the time.  Be in shape, be strong, fire off and good things will happen.  The QB and the skill guys will take care of the rest!

It's kind of fascinating to watch Oregon play, but if you just focus on the line and not on the options with their amazing skill guys, it can seem awfully simple.  And the best part of what Neuheisel said?  You don't NEED GREAT LINEMEN to succeed in Oregon's offense.  They have to be good, Pac-12 level players, sure.  But out west, the 5-star offensive linemen are difficult to find and aside from Stanford or USC, you just don't see a lot of programs running around with great play up front.  You see it in the SEC or in Texas of course, but you just see more speed and flash out here compared to raw power along the front.

Now think about what you typically see in the Air Raid.  You have the QB in shotgun, and usually one back with four wide receivers.  And you have the o-line with those wide splits, and they are essentially out on an island with trying to figure out who to block and where the pressure is coming from.  The QB makes a lot of checks at the line in the no huddle, obviously calling a play but also with offensive line protections, etc.  But if the QB is passing 60 times a game?  You are also asking your offensive line to drop backwards several yards, every single play, and protecting the QB time after time after time.  30 or so times a game, maybe it's not that big of a deal if you are dealing with average linemen across the board.  But ask those guys to do that 50-60 times a game??  Not so good, and we're seeing it first-hand this year with all the sacks.  In fact we've already given up 40 sacks this year, more than any season Mike Leach has coached in his 10+ years as a head man.  But all those sacks aren't on the offensive line, I mean a lot of the struggles we have seen have been with QB's and skill guys not quite being on the same page for the majority of this season.  But you just have to wonder if they simply aren't up to the task that is really demanding of the line play.

I heard an interview with Mark Schlereth once on ESPN, and he was talking about what offensive linemen WANT to do.  With all the passing spread offenses, he said that majority of the offensive linemen don't want to drop back in pass protection time after time.  Instead, those big fatties would much prefer to "pin their ears back" and fire off straight ahead, pounding on the defensive linemen and linebackers in front of them.  Schlereth raved about how fun it was when they won back-to-back Super Bowls with Terrell Davis running for all those yards and TD's.  John Elway was the man of course, but he wasn't throwing it a whole lot at that stage of his career.  The Denver O-line was very good, but they also according to Schlereth had a blast playing that offense.  

And after watching the struggles of this WSU O-line this year, in what many have said is the worst line play they have seen in Pullman?  Well, maybe it's not just the fact that we lack the upper-level athletes at the position, but maybe it's because they are far overmatched based on the scheme alone??  And then if you go forward with that idea, and think about the lack of quality offensive linemen out west, I mean how in the world is Leach going to recruit high-level offensive linemen over programs like Stanford, USC, Oregon, UW, Cal, etc?  Is he really going to waltz in and steal away a Josh Garnett or Zach Banner, someone like that??  Leach gets all the publicity for the skill guys and their incredible success over the years, but he still had great success at getting linemen into the NFL, with 5 out of 17 draft choices in his tenure coming from the O-line alone.  He also had over 20 players sign free agent contracts while at Tech, and many of those came from the O-line position.

Now, why or how did he get those linemen into the NFL?  Was it some special secret that he and his staff happens to have for offensive line work?  Well, no, not really.  I mean his linemen he has recruited obviously can pass block, it's all they really had to do at Tech on a consistent basis.  But maybe the secret is simply the STATE OF TEXAS!?!?  Maybe, just maybe, getting the leftover talent that a Texas or Oklahoma or Texas A&M like he did at Tech, maybe that was still good enough because the Jimmie's and Joe's that he was able to recruit to Tech on the lines were still vastly superior to what he has to work with in Pullman?  And going one step further……maybe, just maybe, this whole thing is never going to work out at WSU because he will never get the quality linemen that are necessary to throw it 60 times a game!?!?  

My last point is this – Leach made some comments a week ago to Jim Moore on ESPN radio.  Moore asked Leach about the Twitter ban, and Leach responded by saying that it was becoming a problem with some very inappropriate things, but also took it a step further and insinuated why Moore would criticize him on that.  And then he said something to the effect of you wouldn't ask Mike Leach to come into your office and tell you how to do your job, would you?  Then why should he listen to Jim Moore criticize and critique the things he should be doing as head coach?  As Leach said, I might listen to what you have to say, but that doesn't mean I'm going to do anything about it!  Unfortunately I can't find the podcast, but it was the week before the Stanford game if you want to go try and listen to it yourself.

But Leach making those comments got me thinking who the hell am I to really criticize what he's doing?  I'm not a head coach, I never played college football.  I only played in middle school and a couple of years in high school, so I'm not any authority as to whether he's really doing a good job or not. I'm not in the film room or the weekly meetings or practices, I don't know what's really going on inside the walls.  Leach is the one who has coached young men from all walks of life to a very high level of play in his past, he's the one with the track record.  He's the one who has had a record-setting offense and graduated his kids, not me.  So why should I feel like I not only can criticize, but should criticize to begin with??  

Well, it's because I'm just like you – I'm a FAN, short for FANATIC.  I love WSU football, and hell, we've had a WSU Football Blog for EIGHT FLIPPIN' YEARS!  If we didn't love it or weren't fanatic about it, we wouldn't be here.  And in sports, fans are the pulse of the program.  We don't have to be inside to see what's going on, for we are the ultimate critics in that we see the work every Saturday.  But part of being a "FAN" is to have hope, and to believe things will all turn around tomorrow.  And of course, as fans we also pay the freight on tickets and suites and all that other stuff that college programs need to survive.  So we might not be the sharpest football minds around, but we sure have a say in it because the program needs their fans!

But best of all, as a fan it's to not be afraid to criticize what we see.  And while I have been firmly behind Mike Leach all along, and I still believe he knows more about football and motivating young talent to achieve greater things in his pinky than I do in my entire body?  It's not hard to look at the end result and see that this thing has been a disaster from the get-go.  I have HOPE it will turn around….but I've never had so much doubt as well.

All for now.  Enjoy your fall-back Sunday, and of course, GO COUGS!

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