PULLMAN – Yes, there were some issues and we will get to those eventually. But they pale in comparison to the magnitude of Washington State’s win over Oregon – the second in two tries – and how many worries were put to rest by a team that had little go its way in the season’s first month.
The Cougars gave a crowd of 33,528 fans every reason to come back in two weeks for Homecoming with their 51-33 win over the Ducks. The Cougars addressed a number of concerns that will not keep WSU fans from losing any sleep this week.
And WSU showed off an ability to dominate an opponent on the ground that will astonish defensive coordinators who thought the way to beat WSU was to flood the field with defensive backs.
The rushing game will doubtlessly force head coach and chief play caller Mike Leach to deal with yet another year of everyone wondering why the Cougars do not run the ball more. Well, why not? The running backs ran for six touchdowns on Saturday - two per back, naturally - and I don’t mean those short passes the Cougars call runs, either.
Even Leach acknowledged that he has probably never had a team rush for 280 yards and six scores before. And we say even because this includes not just his offenses at Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but probably those teams he coached in Finland, Italy and Japan as well.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” said Gerard Wicks, who knocked over the first domino by rushing for 22 yards on the team’s first offensive play.
“It’s the o-line, man,” added Jamal Morrow, who led the team with 122 rushing yards. “Clay McGuire does a great job of telling them to get down field, and the way they’ve been blocking these last two games has been incredible.”
“I’ve got to give coach Leach credit,” Wicks followed. “This whole week, usually he’s over there (with the receivers) during one-on-one. This week he’s been over every week cussing us out, ‘Drive your feet! Drive your feet!’”
James Williams, whose 38-yard run in the fourth quarter was the team’s longest of the game, showed the love to his running backs coach.
“He expects a lot from us,” Williams said. “He doesn’t take it easy on us at all. I feel like it’s helping me a lot.”
The pass rush, which garnered just two sacks through the first three games, matched that total against UO and made Dakota Prukop one of the least comfortable quarterbacks to play in Martin Stadium in years.
Though Royce Freeman did have a 75-yard touchdown carry, the WSU defense held him to a 3.5 yard average on his other 18 rushes.
“I thought the defense did pretty good, because Oregon is pretty diverse with those running backs,” Leach said. “The thing is, justifiably Freeman gets a lot of credit, but those other guys are really good players, too.”
And quarterback Luke Falk, who entered the game completing 75 percent of his passes, but had not been able to will the Cougars to points in the same manner he did during last year’s All-Conference season. Falk chucked the ball all over the field, picking up 371 passing yards while completing 36-of-48 attempts to maintain his batting average.
The Cougars (2-2, 1-0 Pac-12) were 7-of-12 on third down attempts, converted one of two fourth down attempts, largely thanks to Falk’s heady play.
For example, in the second quarter third-and-11, Falk dropped back and was given all the time he needed to find a receiver who could move the sticks. He went through his reads, did not see anybody, and waited for Jamal Morrow to break open 18 yards down field. On the next play, the offensive line and Gerard Wicks blew the Ducks defense back two yards for a rushing touchdown – the third of the first half – to give the Cougars a 28-14 lead.
As good a win as it was for the Cougars, there were some glaring issues that must surely be cleaned up if WSU is to win at Stanford next weekend.
One has already cost WSU perhaps two wins and could certainly cost them more. An inability to make field goals (0-for-4 now this season) meant two trips inside the five-yard line with nothing to show for it. The first time yielded a missed 22-yard field goal, and the second an incomplete pass from the three-yard line on fourth down because Leach did not trust his kicking team.
Nobody could get into the end zone in the second half until WSU defensive end Hercules Mata’afa finally took matter into his own hands. After the aforementioned failed fourth down conversion, the Ducks took over on their three-yard line. A rush by Royce Freeman went nowhere (wow, that happened a lot on Saturday) and Mata’afa sacked Prukop on the next play, pulling the quarterback’s knee to the ground before Prukop could fire a pass to nobody.
The Cougars last recorded a safety one decade and one week prior, during a late September game against Stanford in 2006.
That score broke things open for the Cougars. The excitement around James Williams will only grow after the redshirt freshman’s electric 38-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But again with the special teams; Charles Nelson counterpunched with a 100-yard kickoff return on the ensuing kickoff.
Oh and the wide receivers still drop way too many passes.
So there is no question beating UO (2-3, 0-2) was not a cure-all for the Cougars. But a second consecutive win over a program that has spent the 2000s playing for national championships is quite the remedy for a program and fan base that lost its first two gains by a combined six points and seen its momentum from last year’s nine-win season flip rather than stall.
No matter what happened in the nonconference games, right now the Cougars are looking up at no one in the Pac-12 North standings. And for the first time in 2016, on Saturday WSU looked like a crew that belongs at the top.
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