PULLMAN – The sources of frustration for Washington State fans this year have been endless.
While there may not be a clubhouse leader at this point, one of the front-runners would have to be the number of penalties the Cougars have accrued through nine games. As a team, they’ve had a yellow flag thrown their way 69 times, which puts them at 11th in the conference behind only USC. Since the Trojans have played 10 times, the Cougars are actually the most penalized team in the conference, at 7.67 flags per game, which also ranks them 118th out of 130 in the Football Subdivision.
Among the infractions, one has been more maddening than the others.
“False start, No. 63, offense.”
Liam Ryan’s penalties, and the regularity at which they’ve happened, have drawn the ire of those watching from home this season.
WSU’s new left tackle has been the most penalized player on the most penalized team in the conference, absorbing 15 flags through nine games and at least one in every game with the exception of the season opener against New Mexico State.
Comb through the stats and you’ll find the team’s next-most penalized players are center Fred Mauigoa, right guard Josh Watson and cornerback Marcus Strong, who have three apiece. Ryan’s total, comprised of seven false starts, six holds, one unsportsmanlike conduct call and one ineligible receiver downfield penalty, is larger than the total of four other offensive linemen combined. There have been three for Mauigoa and Watson, two for Rob Valencia, one for Brian Greene and zero for the tackle starting opposite Ryan, Abe Lucas.
Ryan’s penalties – mostly mindless errors – have been a disconcerting trend, but not just for the people watching from behind a television screen, or from the bleachers at Martin Stadium.
“The false starting stuff’s embarrassing,” offensive line coach Mason Miller said. “And I’m not going to make an excuse for any of that. I’m just not. I mean that’s embarrassing.”
“It’s just pathetic,” added head coach Mike Leach. “It’s just a lack of discipline. It’s a lack of discipline, and as coaches we’ve got to lean on them harder and get it out of them. It’s just concentration.”
Ryan wasn’t made available for comment.
If you subtract the penalties, Ryan’s first season at a new spot has been a big success.
The Cougars are on pace to break more passing records, and their quarterback, Anthony Gordon, is being sacked just once for every 47.6 pass attempts. After an inefficient game against Cal, running back Max Borghi is still leading the conference at 6.8 yards per attempt, plowing through the running lanes opened up by Ryan and his mates on the offensive line.
By Miller’s count, Ryan has been responsible for just one sack, and he hasn’t missed a snap in Pac-12 play.
But, about those penalties …
When the junior was flagged four times against Utah – three false starts and one hold – Miller was desperate for answers. He drafted a text message to the last player to play left tackle for the Cougars, first-round NFL draft pick Andre Dillard, who’s since adopted a starting role for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I was texting with (Andre) Dillard, like, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ ” Miller said. “Tell me because I want to fix it.”
Dillard and Ryan have remained close since the former Cougar was picked up No. 18 overall last April. Last spring, as Dillard was preparing for pro day and the scouting combine, he spent time on campus helping Ryan with the oft-challenging transition from guard to tackle.
“They’re more exposed (at tackle), but the other thing is he needs to be more disciplined in there,” Leach said. “And also, I think he’s been victimized a couple times.”
Fans were left scratching their head after Ryan drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Week 2 against Northern Colorado, when the offensive lineman was suspiciously accused of “pointing at an opponent.”
A few of the holds may be up for debate – congruent with Leach’s claim his player has been “victimized.”
But the false starts? They’re intolerable.
“Some of it is trying to get off the ball quicker, more efficiently,” Miller said. “Some of it is on other people. Some of it’s a lack of communication. But again, it ultimately falls on him. I penalize his butt and rolled him in the sand a little bit.”
It doesn’t help, Miller adds, that Ryan’s so often been compared to the player he replaced.
“That’s illogical,” the position coach said.
For those who’ve suggested the Cougars should reconfigure their line and shift Lucas to the left side, Miller has a response.
“Has anybody ever seen (Lucas) take a left-handed stance, take it past that? Again, illogical,” Miller said. “Why didn’t they flip (Philadelphia’s) Lane Johnson over to left tackle instead of playing Andre? Guy’s an All-Pro.”
Miller said there’s some credence to the idea that a position change offers unfamiliarity, especially when you’re moving inside-to-outside as Ryan’s done.
“Maybe a little with position change, you’re a little further from the ball,” he said. “I’ve never thought about that.”
In WSU’s lowest-scoring games of the year – a 38-13 loss at Utah and a 33-20 loss at Cal – Ryan was penalized a combined seven times. It’s a pressing matter for Miller and the Cougars, still bowl-hunting with three games left, but it’s also something he expects to change with time.
“Now when I got here – and again he’s one of my favorite children – Andre was the king of jumping offside,” Miller said. “It was bad. … But again, he was trying to get off the ball. He wants to get off. And I get it, but I don’t care. I understand what you’re doing, but I could care less.”
Ryan committed just one penalty in 12 games last season at left guard (stats from WSU’s game at Wyoming don’t include individual penalties). In 2019, the desire to get off the ball quickly at a new position has lured him into a pile of yellow flags – 15, just as a reminder.
“It’s a very simple thing,” Miller said. “But with choices comes consequences. I’m going to punish him and he knows. At the end of the day, this isn’t brain surgery. Don’t jump.”
Rest assured, Ryan’s taken the matter seriously. His teammates attest to that.
“Liam’s the most passionate player on this team, arguably, so he takes a great deal of pride when he falls up a little bit short,” Gordon said. “So don’t want him to beat himself up too much, but it’s cool to see him hold himself accountable, and he’s doing whatever he can to correct his mistakes and he’ll be ready to go on Saturday. I’m confident in that.”
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