PULLMAN – Every Saturday night or Sunday morning, Washington State’s sports information directors are tasked with nominating players for weekly Pac-12 Conference Honors, which are then voted on by league media members and then announced to the public sometime around noon on Monday.
The Air Raid Cougars often have more than one clear candidate for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the week, but following a 49-22 win over Stanford, the nomination process could be especially taxing.
WSU has four reasonable choices this time.
Do you nominate quarterback Anthony Gordon, who threw for 520 yards and hit four different players for five touchdown passes, breaking the school’s single-season record in the process? Or Brandon Arconado, who caught nine passes for a career-best 148 yards and one touchdown? Another option: Easop Winston Jr., who hauled in 11 passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns. And how about running back Max Borghi, who had 111 rushing yards and one score on the ground to go with eight catches, 34 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Thankfully, we can leave that task to the sports information department. But we will rewind WSU’s fifth win of the season, which was absolutely pivotal for a team that now needs one more victory to punch its bowl ticket.
“Y” so good?
When Brandon Arconado broke out for eight catches, 127 yards and one touchdown in the second game of the season against Northern Colorado, some might have figured it was an anomaly considering Arconado’s career stat line before that had been four catches, 73 yards and one touchdown in 20 games played.
Now it seems that anything other than a 100-yard performance would be an anomaly for the senior receiver. For the fourth time in as many games and for the sixth time this season, Arconado reached that plateau, turning nine catches into a career-high 148 yards and one touchdown.
If Arconado keeps this up, the senior should have WSU’s first 1,000-yard receiving season since 2015, when Gabe Marks (1,192) and Dom Williams (1,040) both hit quadruple digits. He’s up to 60 catches for 869 yards and six touchdowns, which makes him the most productive “Y” receiver the Cougars have had under Mike Leach.
Consider, too, that Arconado missed the entirety of two games (UCLA, ASU) with an injury and still has at least two games remaining. Arconado probably can’t surpass Vince Mayle (1,483 yards) for the most productive season by a Leach receiver, but he can become the first slot to reach 1,000 in the Air Raid era and he needs just one more 100-yard effort to match the school’s single-season record of seven held by Mike Levenseller.
Leach has admitted he’s been surprised by the production of his former walk-on, albeit it’s a good surprise.
“A little bit,” Leach said. “I’d say more pleased than surprised, but he’s gotten better and better and I guess he’s kind of put a string together that has been kind of a pleasant surprise. Usually at some point something doesn’t go your way, but he’s been very steady and we need more guys that are steady like that.”
WSU reduced penalties as a team and the Cougars’ most penalized player this season took a big step in doing the same.
The Cougars, who’d been drawing a league-high 7.6 penalties per game this season, kept their penalty tally to just five against Stanford while the Cardinal drew nine.
Left tackle Liam Ryan, who’d picked up at least one flag in every game since the season opener, wasn’t penalized once in the 27-point blowout win. Coming in to Saturday, the player who adopted Andre Dillard’s role in the offseason had committed a total of 15 penalties – seven false starts, six holds, one unsportsmanlike conduct and one ineligible receiver downfield.
Some of the holding calls may have been up for interpretation, but Ryan had worked diligently to eliminate the false starts, which O-line coach Mason Miller called “embarrassing” during the middle of the week.
Ryan got the message and cleaned things up Saturday, while also protecting Gordon on the second 500-yard passing night for the QB and blocking for Borghi on the sophomore’s fourth 100-yard rushing effort.
“He hasn’t really let them get him down very much,” Abe Lucas said. “Obviously there’s people in his ear, but he’s not paying attention to them, he’s paying attention to what the coaches say, because it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks outside of Washington State football.
“That being said, I think he did a great job bouncing back this week and I think he knows what he needs to improve on.”
Leach, who’d also been critical of Ryan, said the left tackle “played with better technique, and that’s the most important part of it.”
Third down success
The Pac-12’s best offense had been just mediocre on third down coming into Saturday’s game, and WSU’s conversion rate was especially brutal in games at Oregon and Cal. The Cougars converted on 1 of 9 third downs against the Ducks and were only a little better against the Golden Bears, succeeding on 3 of 12.
Before Saturday, WSU’s third-down conversion rate on the season was just 36 of 97, or 37%. Only two teams in the conference are converting on fewer than 40 percent of their third downs and thanks to this weekend, the Cougars are no longer one of them.
While Leach said the Cougars capped too many drives with field goals, they were much improved on third down, converting nine times on 13 attempts against the Cardinal.
“It’s obviously the practice habit, we’ve been practicing it like crazy,” Borghi said. “We’ve been a lot more serious about it in practice, and it showed out on the field tonight.”
Playing stronger defense on third down had also been a priority for a WSU team that was allowing opponents to convert on 45 percent. Stanford had 11 third-down attempts on Saturday, but the Cardinal converted just four of those (36%).
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