PULLMAN – Before they see anything else, visitors to Mike Leach’s office inside the Cougar Football Complex often notice a life-sized pirate wielding a metal sword when they enter the coach’s fifth-floor workspace.
The motion-sensor figure comes to life when you stand in front of it, spewing out one of two or three different pirate-y catchphrases before returning to its statue form.
Leach had to feel like that pirate at times this week. Washington State’s head coach often repeated himself as regional reporters from the Palouse and Spokane encouraged him to reflect on the Cougars’ previous encounter with Eastern Washington on Sept. 3, 2016 at Martin Stadium, which the FCS Eagles won – memorably – by a score of 45-42.
But Leach, and most of his counterparts in this business, don’t see any point in dwelling on the past when you have to deal with the present. And the coach’s answers reflected that approach.
What comes to mind when you think about the game against (EWU) two years ago?
“I don’t think about it very much because I’ve had a lot of next games since,” Leach said Monday in a weekly news conference. “So I’m pretty much focused on this one. As a matter of fact, I don’t think a lot about the San Jose State game last week. You’ve got to move forward, and if I thought about every past game, that’s all I’d be doing. So I don’t think about it very much.”
Do you try to draw anything from that game that you can take to this year?
“Like what?” Leach responded. “If you’ve got something clever I’ll listen to you, but no, not really.”
I know you don’t look back much, but what do you think if you ever look back at that Eastern game? Or right after, two years ago. What did you get out of that ballgame?
“Uh, I don’t look back at it at all,” he said the next day on a Pac-12 teleconference. “If there’s some good reason, let me know. We’ve had a lot of games since then, so I’m kind of trying to focus on the next one.”
In 2018, the Eagles present a few of the same challenges they did two years ago, but also differ in many respects. Their roster is still loaded with players who felt they should be playing at a school with WSU’s prestige, but were overlooked on the recruiting trail for one reason or another and wound up in Cheney. It can sometimes be difficult for the bigger to school to get up for a game like this, whereas a smaller program like EWU often circles it with a sharpie as soon as the matchup is announced.
“I’ve coached at that level and been a part of beating a Big Ten team,” said WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the DC at Southern Illinois when the Salukis took down Indiana on the road in 2006. “You didn’t have to say much at practice as a coach. Those kids, they feel like they got overlooked and should’ve had the opportunity to play at a Power Five school and didn’t, and it’s their time to shine and show you that they can play at that level. So they’re always going to play with a lot of energy, and you’re always going to get their best.”
Similar to 2016, WSU will be tasked with containing a fleet-footed, strong-armed quarterback named Gage Gubrud. But unlike 2016, Gubrud won’t have as many safety valves this time around, and the Cougars can pretty much guarantee most of his balls will be thrown toward Nsimba Webster, a fifth-year senior who’s caught 17 of Gubrud’s 38 completions through two games.
“The boy’s caught a lot of deep balls,” Claeys said of Webster. “So we’re going to have to make sure we keep the ball in front of us, and we’ve done a decent job of that this year, of keeping it in front of us, so we’ll have to continue to do that and rally to it and tackle.”
While WSU players have been advised not to spend too much time on memory lane this week, they haven’t completely deleted 2016 from their hard drive. Perhaps that’ll be helpful for a team that clearly lacked something – energy, effort or both – the most recent time these teams met.
Starting WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t around then, but even he can sense the significance of Saturday’s rematch.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder, have something to prove with them coming to town,” Minshew said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We know they have a good team, and we’re really looking forward to playing them.”
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