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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


The day after Oregon State

Our weekly dissection of the previous day's Washington State game examines the Cougars 52-31 win over Oregon State.

The Cougars played poorly in the second half of the win – they were downright terrible on offense. The team seemed to lose energy when it sensed that it already had enough points to win, and that can be a great way to suffer an embarrassing loss.

Here's the thing though: The Cougars were clearly right. The OSU offense was never going to make up that 28-point halftime deficit. The Beavers didn't have the ability to create explosive plays other than the occasional run by Seth Collins – who should be pretty good in time – and whatever they could manufacture for Victor Bolden.

The more salient takeaway from the game is that WSU was able to impose its will and execute against a team with inferior athletes. The Cougars picked up their most exciting home win since the 2012 Apple Cup, frankly played their best home game of the Mike Leach era, and gave 32,952 fans a good reason to come back.

The Cougars also seem to be improving at a rapid pace relative to their peers. WSU got five votes in the coaches poll today, which doesn't seem all that unreasonable when one is able to dispassionately look at how the team has played since Sept. 6, the day after the Portland State debacle. If the season had started at Rutgers and the Cougars were 4-1 with a close loss at California as their only blemish, the team would be ranked or close to it.

WSU's players and coaches don't really care about all that, but fans and ESPN College Gameday producers surely do and the Cougars seem to be playing at a level right now that's worth outsider attention.

Here are some of the other takeaways from yesterday's blowout:

-- Dom Williams had arguably his best game in his prolific career, catching 11 passes for 158 yards  (both career highs) and two scores, prompting Mike Leach to say afterward, "… even though he's later in his career, if not the most improved player on our team, he's definitely one of the most improved players on our team."

The productive game isn't necessarily an indicator of Williams' improvement, though, he's been doing that for years. With 25 receiving touchdowns, he's No. 2 all-time at WSU, and has a decent chance of catching school leader Jason Hill's 32, particularly if the Cougars make a bowl game.

He's always been a playmaker and they've come in bunches: 108 yards and two scores as a freshman against UCLA in 2012, 143 yards in that year's Apple Cup, 154 yards and two scores against Utah in 2013.

Where Williams' improvement is evident in his consistency. The outside receiver has six touchdown in six games and has only accounted for fewer than 71 receiving yards in one game this season, the home win over Wyoming in which he had two scores.

Williams did this last year, too, scoring six touchdowns and accumulating 355 receiving yards over four games. But health issues affected the receiver. He played sparingly and did not catch a pass against Stanford and wasn't the same player the rest of the year.

If Williams can continue his splendid play from this season's first half, he and Gabe Marks will keep stressing defense's all over the field and the WSU offense should continue to be effective.

-- Oddly, Jamal Morrow had never scored a touchdown entering yesterday's game. He's got two now, but given that the running back led the team in rushing yards last season and was No. 4 on the team in receiving yards, it's surprising he had yet to score.

-- Shalom Luani was once again everywhere yesterday, intercepting two passes, breaking up another and co-leading the team in tackles with 11. But while Luani has been able to create big plays on the defensive side of the ball, he can make an even bigger impact if he can become a backstop at this safety position that prevents opposing offenses from getting big plays of their own.

Last year the Cougars gave up 71 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage, 113th-best in the country. Through six games this year, WSU has given up 27 such plays, a respectable if not great number that ranks 59th-best nationally. However, 18 of those big plays have come in the last three games and WSU has been once again one of the country's worst teams at preventing big plays in October.

The Cougars have two more October games, against Arizona and Stanford, and are going to have to shore up those recent big-play issues to win either of them.

The team can make the greatest improvement in defending the run game – WSU actually ranks No. 15 in the country in 20-plus yard passing plays allowed with just 14 – but No. 105 with 13 explosive runs allowed, despite already having its bye week.

Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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