TEMPE, Ariz. – Back to the drawing board.
The Cougars showed renewed focus and energy coming out of the bye week, but in the wake of a 38-34 loss to Arizona State, the list of things to correct is still much longer than the list of things to celebrate.
In this edition of the rewind, we examine the team’s morale after Saturday’s game in Tempe (it might not be what you think), WSU’s tendency to give up explosive plays, and the recent drought the Cougars have hit when it comes to causing turnovers.
1. Maintaining morale
If the Cougars lost in gut-wrenching fashion, for the second time in three games, while committing many of the same defensive mishaps that tortured them against UCLA and Utah, you wouldn’t have known it judging by the tones and facial expressions of WSU players and coaches in the the visitors’ postgame press conference.
By and large, the Cougars were confident they’d made positive strides since the last time they lined up against a Pac-12 opponent, and understood they were only a few plays shy of beating a ranked foe on the road.
“I think it went well, I think everything’s together well,” nose tackle Dallas Hobbs said. “But like I said, we’ve got a few things to fix, and then I feel like it’s all going to be good.”
Added Hobbs: “I think the energy was high, focus was good. A new spark was lit, that spark lit a match, and I feel like we’re just trying to keep it going. A new fire was lit, you can tell, but we’ve just got to piece it all together.”
Mike Leach blasted his team for being “fat, dumb, happy and entitled” the previous time he spoke to reporters from a visiting press conference room, in Salt Lake City. The WSU coach was still critical of the Cougars, but also praised their effort and offered as many compliments as he did complaints.
Leach also refrained from labeling his team as “soft” – an adjective he used multiple times in the postgame pressers following the losses to UCLA and Utah.
“I thought it was definitely a step forward, no question,” Leach said. “I thought it was definitely a step forward.”
And on defense, specifically: “We definitely lined up better, we definitely played with more enthusiasm.”
2. Explosive effect
Of the defensive issues eating at the Cougars right now, none loom larger than the inability to prevent explosive plays. It’s different depending who you ask, but we define an explosive play as a run play of 12 yards or longer, or a pass play of 20 yards or longer.
Here are the explosive runs the Cougars gave up: 15 yards, 20 yards, 12 yards, 32 yards (touchdown) and 17 yards (touchdown).
And the explosive pass plays: 40 yards (touchdown), 86 yards (touchdown), 25 yards and 33 yards (touchdown).
In the loss to Utah, the Cougars conceded nine explosive plays, including three pass plays of 40 yards or longer. Against UCLA, they gave up a whopping 12 explosive plays, including pass plays of 61 and 94 yards.
In Pac-12 play, WSU’s defense has allowed four pass plays of 20-plus yards, five of 30-plus, two of 40-plus and five of 50 yards or more.
“We let them get too many explosives on us,” Leach said. “Our biggest problem defensively isn’t down-in and down-out, it’s explosives. We don’t give up nearly as many base hits as we do home runs.”
Interestingly, all nine of the explosive plays the Cougars conceded on Saturday against Arizona State came after the first quarter, which could indicate the Sun Devils just needed a quarter to figure out how to best attack their opponent, or WSU’s defensive backs grew more fatigued as the game went on. Likely, it was a little of both.
Nonetheless, eliminating big plays is obviously a key going forward. Had the Cougars been able to negate at least one or two in the games against UCLA and ASU, they’re probably entering the homecoming game with a 5-1 record, still in prime position to compete for a division title.
But the secondary still needs lots of work. All three quarterbacks WSU has seen in Pac-12 play have posted their season-high passing total against the Cougars: UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson (507), Utah’s Tyler Huntley (334) and now Jayden Daniels (363).
3. Takeaway trouble
Over the past two games, WSU solved its turnover problems and simulataneously found more.
Against UCLA, the Cougars coughed the ball up five times and were intercepted twice more. In eight quarters since, they’ve committed just two turnovers, and didn’t commit one against the Sun Devils. Anthony Gordon was hit-and-miss with his accuracy, but for the first time since the season opener, the redshirt senior quarterback didn’t throw an interception – which is even more impressive when you consider he aired it out a career-high 64 times.
WSU also went another full game without creating a turnover. It’s now been 11 quarters since the Cougars last caused a defensive takeaway – that being Skyler Thomas’ interception of Thompson-Robinson in the second quarter of the UCLA game.
The Cougars nearly had one Saturday, but after Ron Stone Jr. forced Jordan Kerley to fumble, and Pat Nunn recovered, officials determined WSU’s redshirt freshman nickel was out of bounds and the Sun Devils maintained possession.
“I absolutely do think we need to cause more turnovers, it’s debatable that we had one,” Leach said. “But I think we absolutely need to cause more turnovers.”
Causing turnovers had been a strength for this team leading into the UCLA game, and coming out of the 67-63 loss, the Cougars had forced 10 in four games. With a top-10 offense, WSU would obviously benefit from a few more possessions every game, and now that the Cougars have mitigated their own turnover issues, taking the ball away from the opponent should be the next step.
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