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Washington State coach Mike Leach, assistants absent from first bowl practice due to travel issues

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 8, 2017

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, center, added 17 players to the program Wednesday during the early signing period. Players include four-star quarterback Cammon Cooper and East Valley receiver Roderick Fisher. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach, center, added 17 players to the program Wednesday during the early signing period. Players include four-star quarterback Cammon Cooper and East Valley receiver Roderick Fisher. (Young Kwak / AP)

PULLMAN – Mike Leach may have had an overhead view of Washington State’s first Holiday Bowl practice, but the Cougars’ boss never actually made it to Martin Stadium on Friday evening because a heavy layer of fog prevented his flight from landing at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport.

Leach, who’d been on the road recruiting, was initially delayed on a connecting flight from Seattle to Pullman. His airplane lifted off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 3:15 p.m. – nearly an hour and a half late – and should’ve arrived in Pullman by 4:20. According to WSU officials, the plane circled Moscow-Pullman Regional multiple times but never landed because of the thick fog billows hanging over the Palouse.

Instead, the flight was turned back to Seattle and Leach was absent for WSU’s two-hour practice session at Martin Stadium – the first official team gathering since a 41-14 loss in the Apple Cup on Nov. 25.

A handful of other WSU assistants, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, also missed practice for the same reason.

“It was kind of weird,” running back Jamal Morrow said. “But still having the GA’s, the other assistant coaches out there kind of helped us. It brought some more energy to the table. … We’re not just out there to mess around, we’re out there to get good work in.”

Added offensive lineman Cody O’Connell: “It’s still practice, just different voices doing different things and we’ve got to just get it done.”

Friday would’ve been Leach’s first public meeting with media members since the Apple Cup and the coach was expected to give an update on the situation with wide receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack, who announced on Twitter last Thursday he was planning to transfer from the football program, then reported two days later in another tweet that Leach refused to grant his release.

Johnson-Mack deleted the second tweet and a WSU spokesperson said the player and coach were expected to meet on Friday to “resolve the issue.” The meeting never took place because of Leach’s travel issues.

And had the WSU coach been around, it’s there’s a good chance he would’ve fielded a few questions about his reported meeting with Tennessee’s John Currie last Thursday. Leach had been linked to the head coaching vacancy in Knoxville – which has since been filled by Alabama offensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt – and numerous reports claimed he’d met the UT athletic director in Los Angeles during a recruiting trip. Some reported that Leach and the Vols were close to striking a deal, but those rumors all but washed away less than 24 hours later when Currie was suspended by Tennessee.

Cougar players, many of them active on social media, were in the loop as their head coach emerged as a supposed target for the Volunteers, although they say it didn’t affect them.

“It’s just noise, like what coach Leach says, just outside noise,” Morrow said. “That’s exactly what that is and we don’t really listen to that stuff.”

Said O’Connell: “I haven’t paid much attention to that,” O’Connell said. “If he wants to take it, take it. If not, he’s here. So he’s got to do what’s best for him and I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”

Given the success Leach has had in Pullman – the Cougars will be playing in their third consecutive bowl later this month – it’s no surprise his name has floated around as other Power Five jobs have opened up. Leach, in some fashion, was also linked to the openings at Oregon, Arkansas and Nebraska.

“There’s names that are out there and there’s always going to be names that get thrown out there when you have success,” said WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, one of the few assistants in town for Friday’s practice.

Not as web savvy as some of his teammates, Cougars quarterback Luke Falk learned about the rumors second-hand – “I guess I’m naïve to it and people have to shoot it over to me in text,” he said – but echoed Morrow’s sentiments, noting it’s important “to block out the noise.”

Leach and the stranded WSU assistants hope to be back on the Palouse for Saturday’s practice at 11:30 a.m. The Cougars also practice Sunday at the same time.

Mata’afa addresses targeting ejection

An All-American defensive lineman might be the last person in need of a tackling 101, but the Cougars say they’ve used Hercules Mata’afa’s targeting ejection as a teaching opportunity for their junior defensive tackle.

Mata’afa was ejected from the Apple Cup after an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Washington quarterback Jake Browning and will have to miss the first half of the Dec. 28 Holiday Bowl against Michigan State.

“You’ve got to bring that hit down and the rule’s been in play for a little bit now and so we were definitely high on that hit and we’ve got to be lower,” Phelps said. “We were a split-second late on that hit, but that’s the game and so we’ve just got to make sure we hit in that strike zone. Below the shoulders and above the knees.”

On Friday, Mata’afa said WSU coaches will contest the ejection, though the Pac-12 doesn’t have an appeal process as it pertains to the targeting rule and all calls confirmed by the replay review are final.

Mata’afa explained his vantage point of the play that led to the ejection.

“I saw him tuck the ball in as if he was a runner and I came off of a block and he was right there and we just kind of collided,” he said. “That’s football. When you play as fast as I do, things like that will happen.”

Mata’afa watched the remainder of WSU’s 27-point loss on a television in the visitor’s locker room – something he called “a big burden.”

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