PULLMAN – Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars were not a finesse team this year because they liked to spread defenses out, attack space and play with a fast, open style of play that relies upon timing and speed more than size.
That’s a misconception that Leach feels like he has been fighting his entire career.
His team was a finesse team because they were not very tough. After the Week 2 loss at Boise State, Leach decided to do something about that.
“Our team has gotten tougher. It’s funny because depending on the style of play somebody will refer to somebody as a finesse team,” Leach told John Clayton during a radio interview this week. “There aren’t any good finesse teams. There are only great tough teams.”
After the BSU loss, Leach and the coaches changed their approach. There was less positive reinforcement for doing one’s job, and the coaches demanded more from the players in practice. WSU showed its new edge as it beat up Idaho and Oregon, scoring more than 50 points in both contests.
On Saturday, the Cougars’ new-found toughness will be put to the test against the Pac-12’s biggest bully over the past decade. And no, Stanford is not a tough team because it plays a run-heavy style of football and has a lot of big players.
Stanford is tough because the players are really, truly tough, man.
“Everything about them is impressive. Everything they do is impressive,” inside receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard said. “Their defensive backs, they run hard. Their linebackers, they run hard and tackle. Their D-line, they get penetration and make plays. It’s impressive just the way they work.”
The Cougars will need to impose their will on the Cardinal in tough, physical manner. That’s because Stanford still has reigning Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey, a game-changing running back who leads the country in all-purpose yardage and broke the record in the stat last season.
WSU was able to hold him mostly in check last season. McCaffrey did finish with 107 rushing yards thanks to a 30-yarder near the end of the game, but the Cougars, for the most part, maintained leverage on defense and kept him from producing explosive plays.
Stanford is coming off one of its worse losses ever, a 44-6 drubbing at Washington last weekend that may have provided the blueprint for how to beat the Cardinal. The Huskies were dominant at the line of scrimmage, collecting eight sacks without blitzing and running the ball at will.
Last week, the Cougars showed the ability to do both as well. WSU ran for 280 yards against an Oregon team full of players talented enough to earn a scholarship from a premier program out of high school. They held Royce Freeman, one of the best running backs anywhere, to a pedestrian game save for one outstanding 75-yard run.
In short: The Cougars out-toughed the Ducks. On Saturday against Stanford they just have to do it again against a bigger, more physical opponent. But WSU’s growth in grit over the last month suggests that perhaps the Cougars are on their way.
“That’s the biggest thing for us to evolve toward, to where we really embrace the physical nature of the game and the willingness to hit somebody and not get our ball carriers running out of bounds all the time,” Leach said.
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