PULLMAN — Pester a Washington State Cougar and he might admit that it’s pretty comical to see players sprinting toward a student manager in a striped shirt after every down in practice.
That manager is wearing a referee’s jersey, and he’s the designated official. Give the ball to him, and you won’t get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, even with a stricter set of rules taking effect this season.
“They are really going to be sticky about celebration penalties,” head coach Bill Doba said. “Any kind of a pose or fraternity sign is going to get flagged.”
In fact, the NCAA specifically added everything from diving into the end zone unopposed to signaling a first down to the list of actions that will cost a team 15 yards.
Tightening up the rule book would seem to be the last thing the Cougars need. After all, this is a team that led the nation in penalties last season, racking up an astonishing 145 flags in 13 games. On average, the Cougars were docked just shy of 90 yards a game, also up near the top.
Last year’s off-the-charts rate of penalization, coupled with the rule changes, has the coaches at WSU cracking down this fall.
Most of those infractions will naturally occur in the trenches, so it’s been the offensive and defensive lines spending extra time focusing on eradicating the penalty problem.
“We have addressed it,” offensive line coach George Yarno said. “We’ve changed our snap count, we’ve spent a lot of time on alignment, doing motions to make sure we’re all where we’re supposed to be. I think even in our scrimmages this fall, we’ve had quite a few less penalties.”
In the first scrimmage of the fall, one Cougar did draw a 15-yard unsportsmanlike from the officiating crew, giving the coaching staff an extra opportunity to drive home their point.
Doba was highly critical of his team after the first two scrimmages, pointing out every single false start and offsides in his first words to the media. And by the team’s fourth and final scrimmage, the referees served as little more than window dressing in a nearly penalty-free effort.
“I’ve been the highest-paid head linesmen in the country,” Doba said. “I stand on the sideline and make sure guys are on the line. Those are simple things we want to eliminate, penalties before the snap and after the whistle.”
And make no mistake: The players have noticed.
“It’s a lack of concentration and mental focus,” linebacker Scott Davis said of last year’s flags. “They remind us every play, keep telling us and dragging it into our minds.”
Akey said he and the rest of the staff will continue to monitor the stats throughout the season — and if necessary, punish the team accordingly.
“If we get a bunch of the offsides now, there will be up-downs and the team will wait on us until we’re done doing them and we’ll do them as a whole defense. Because it affects all of us.”
One other NCAA rule change could help out the Cougars. Officials will announce the number of penalized players, something previously done only in the NFL. Now, if a Cougar draws a flag, everyone in the stadium — not to mention all those watching on TV — can identify the guilty party.
Junior free safety Aaron Joseph has called it quits after suffering a concussion earlier in the fall. Joseph’s recovery process has taken a long time, and he has a track record. Trainer Bill Drake estimated that the most recent one was Joseph’s fifth or sixth concussion. “He’ll clear from No. 6, but what’s No. 7 going to be like?” Drake asked, in explaining the decision made by Joseph and his family in consultation with the WSU medical staff. … Wide receiver Greg Prator was back in uniform for WSU’s final practice before going to New Mexico, but he will be a game time decision with a gimpy hamstring. He’s the only member of the Cougar travel squad who might miss the game with an injury. … Middle linebacker Will Derting is one of 36 players named to the preseason watch list for The Lott Trophy. The trophy is named after safety Ronnie Lott and will be awarded to nation’s outstanding collegiate football player. Key criteria for the trophy selection will be the nominee’s IMPACT on college football and his community. IMPACT stands for integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity.