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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State rewind: Mike Leach doubles down on fourth-down gambles in Cheez-It Bowl loss to Air Force

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 28, 2019

PHOENIX – Air Force’s final rushing totals were mostly predictable Friday in the Cheez-It Bowl.

The Falcons carried the ball 69 times for 371 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-21 win at Chase Field in Phoenix, averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry.

It was a pretty sure bet they’d outdo Washington State in time of possession. The Falcons had lost that category twice in their previous 12 games, but only once had Air Force kept the ball 40 minutes or longer. Even while conceding time of possession, the Cougars still feel they could have – and should have – shaved off a few minutes from the Falcons’ hefty total in order to get the ball back to their offense.

“It’s like, to me, (former Georgia coach) Erk Russell was one of the greatest defensive coordinators on Earth,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said. “He was the guy that coached the Junkyard Dogs. And Erk Russell says defense wants to get off the field, you control that. Get off the field. Well, we didn’t do a good job controlling getting off the field, and we didn’t do a good job controlling scoring when we had opportunities. That’s where we fell short.”

It was one area, but certainly not the only one.

In the final WSU rewind of the season, we recap the Cougars’ inability to convert two key fourth downs, two critical injuries suffered on defense and Leach’s abysmal track record in the final two games of the year. The eighth-year coach fell to 3-11 in Apple Cups and bowl games Friday night.

Decisions, decisions…

Leach had a critical decision to make just two plays into the fourth quarter. After Max Borghi picked up 4 yards on third-and-6, the Cougars faced a crucial fourth-and-2 from Air Force’s 5-yard line.

With a touchdown, WSU would’ve still required a field goal to tie the game – trailing 24-14 at that juncture – and vice versa if the Cougars went for the field goal first. A more conservative coach may have chosen the latter, which would’ve alleviated the pressure on the offense and put things into the hands of kicker Blake Mazza, who’d missed just once all season.

Or, grab those seven points first and strive to take the lead on your next drive. Or, at worst, leave it to Mazza to tie the game with a field goal. Leach rolled those dice and Gordon put the ball in Borghi’s hands. Much like his similar situation three quarters earlier, the running back was held up 2 yards short, giving the ball back to Air Force.

Leach explained the rationale behind taking his chances with the offense on fourth down in that situation and the one that came up earlier, when Borghi was stopped on the 1-yard line.

“We thought we’d get them,” Leach said. “So the first one … I thought we’d get. I just thought we’d be able to move it and get it. I felt like we should have, too. Then the other one, at the rate they were eating the clock up, I felt like we were struggling stopping them. So I felt like it was worth it as far as, if we score a touchdown there, then we’re in a pretty good position to win that thing and then take control of it.”

More often than not, those gambles have paid off for the Cougars, especially with a dynamic back like Borghi in the backfield. He’d scored 11 rushing touchdowns coming into the game – many in short-yardage situations such as the ones he faced Friday.

But in both scenarios, Borghi didn’t get the blocking he needed and couldn’t churn his legs to push through multiple defenders the way he normally does.

“I believed we’d get it. We have all year, for the most part,” Leach said. “And, I mean, I know Air Force goes for it on fourth down a lot. But there’s those that have felt like we kind of invented going for it on fourth down a lot. So we kind of stuck with what got us here a little bit.”

Wounded ‘D’

WSU’s season-long woes on defense spilled into the bowl game. The Cougars played much of the game without a key member of the defensive front before losing another starter in the defensive secondary toward the end of the third quarter.

Will Rodgers III, a junior defensive tackle who’d started in 10 of the 11 games he played leading up to the bowl, didn’t get a starting nod Friday and only played sparingly before leaving the field for the injury tent during the third quarter. In his place, the Cougars started Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei – usually a nose tackle – and gave Lamonte McDougle his first start of the season in the middle of the defensive line, replacing Dallas Hobbs, who’d received the last seven starts at nose tackle.

Bryce Beekman, the junior college transfer defensive back who’s made 13 starts at free safety for the Cougars, didn’t make it through the game, coming off the field near the end of the third quarter. Beekman appeared to suffer a lower-body injury, as the junior limped off the field with the help of two athletic trainers.

Until his departure, Beekman, who played his junior college football not far from Phoenix at Arizona Western, had been one of WSU’s top players on defense. He finished the game with eight tackles – second only to Jahad Woods – and one tackle for loss.

The Falcons strung together their final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter without Rodgers or Beekman on the field for the Cougars.

Big-game blunders

With the opportunity to bring their bowl record to an even .500 under Leach, the Cougars took another step backward and missed out on a chance to win consecutive postseason games for the first time in school history.

The Cougars saw their bowl mark drop to 2-4 with Leach – their wins coming against Miami in the 2015 Sun Bowl and Iowa State in the 2018 Alamo Bowl. Their four losses came against Colorado State in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl, Minnesota in the 2016 Holiday Bowl, Michigan State in the 2017 Holiday Bowl and now Air Force.

While the program has toted some impressive win streaks against teams that traditionally sit high on the Pac-12 North totem pole – with four-game runs against Oregon and Stanford – the Cougars have usually relinquished the two games their fans would most like for them to win.

WSU has stumbled in seven of its eight Apple Cups under Leach and four of their six postseason. Fans still haven’t seen their beloved Cougars beat Washington and win a bowl game in the same season, although they’ve watched WSU follow a rivalry loss with postseason defeat in four of the eight seasons under Leach.

A handful of Cougars guaranteed better things are in store next season, many sharing an optimistic outlook on Twitter following the loss to Air Force.

“We ain’t even tapped in to our full potential…watch how we come #2020” nickel Pat Nunn tweeted.

Calvin Jackson Jr., an outside receiver who played in four games while preserving a redshirt, posted: “Time to get in the lab…big things coming. #IPromise” from his Twitter account.

McDougle, who projects to take on a bigger role on the D-line next season, simply posted “2020.” Quarterback Cammon Cooper – the potential successor to Anthony Gordon – wrote “Going to miss Gordo and the rest of the seniors. Looking forward to next season!”

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