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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: Tackling the Cougars’ slightly improved (?) defense, recent comments from a former QB and whether to receive or defer

PULLMAN – Well, the storylines keep developing for this Washington State football team. I’ll give the Cougars this: they’re certainly keeping it interesting for everyone covering the team, and imagine they’ve kept you all on the edge of your toes – for better or for worse.

In this week’s mailbag, we tackle the defense (duh), provide some thoughts on Connor Halliday’s account of why defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned and tell you how Mike Leach decides to receive the ball or defer if the Cougars win the pregame coin toss.

WSU offense leads the country in passing (452.7), is 5th in total offense (538.7) and 7th in scoring (43.0). WSU defense is 115th nationally (out of 130 FBS teams) in total defense and has given up 30 explosive plays in the last three games. Can this huge dichotomy be corrected? Can the coaching staff prevent a divisive team culture that can so easily arise between offense and defense in situations like this? Which players can Bellantoni/McBath coach into being true defensive leaders?

– Stuart O.

I’m glad you asked because I’ve actually contemplated this myself a number of times since the UCLA game.

Washington State’s culture is strong enough, and I believe the locker room is tight-knit enough, that I wouldn’t envision offensive players “pointing fingers” at defensive players, or say, calling them out in media sessions. And the Cougars also know the repercussions wouldn’t be pretty. (Mike Leach has a, umm, “sandbox” situated in the far corner of the practice field he isn’t afraid to use).

But, while I wouldn’t expect this to divide the locker room, or cause friction, if the defense continues to struggle, there’s obviously more pressure on the offense to thrive. The Cougars scored 34 points in a losing effort against Arizona State and 63 in a losing effort against UCLA. Sixty-three points would’ve been enough to win every other Pac-12 game this season, and 34 is enough to win the majority of them.

Even if the offensive players don’t vocalize it, at a certain point they’ll feel burdened to capitalize on every point-scoring opportunity – especially when the defense isn’t creating takeaways. Cal, with an elite defense and a subpar offense, is dealing with the opposite problem right now. This is just an intrinsic part of the game and it’s natural for players on one unit to feel the need to overcompensate when the other unit isn’t producing.

By almost every account, Anthony Gordon had a superb game against the Sun Devils, completing 44-of-64 passes for 466 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But, in the wake of a four-point loss, perhaps he’s spent more time hounding himself for the misthrows than he might otherwise. Had Gordon completed a third-down pass to Calvin Jackson Jr. in the second quarter, it would’ve netted a 20-plus yard gain for the Cougars, and could’ve led to a touchdown. But instead the drive stalled and ASU kicked a field goal to end the half.

Of course, every QB is afforded the occasional miss, and had the defense pulled out at least one more stop, the incomplete pass doesn’t feel like such a wasted opportunity. But, when the Cougars are giving up more than 35 points per game, every chance the offense has to get into the end zone carries more weight.

What could Halliday’s motivation be to dish dirt like this? His “information” may have substance but is certainly hearsay at best, straight up gossip at the worst.

– Steve K.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to cover Connor Halliday (he and Gabe Marks would’ve been a delight, I imagine), but his brutal honesty made him as a polarizing figure as his gaudy passing numbers.

I was reminded Tuesday night of Halliday’s comment after Quentin Breshears missed a short field goal that decided a 60-59 loss to Cal on a night that saw the QB pass for an NCAA-record 734 yards.

“I mean, it’s an 18-yard field goal,” Halliday said.

The Spokane native and Ferris High graduate stirred it up a year earlier, when the Cougars barely lost to Auburn, 31-24, in the 2013 opener.

“If (Auburn) could find a quarterback, they’d be a top-five team in the nation,” Halliday said. “They just don’t have a guy who can throw it. That running game was something very, very impressive.”

As we learned Tuesday on the “Cougtalk” podcast, Halliday hasn’t changed. He’s blunt, direct and clearly doesn’t feel obligated to protect anyone in the program, which is actually somewhat refreshing. Could it be damaging to the football program? I’m not naive enough to believe players aren’t still scrolling through their Twitter feeds, even with Leach’s social media ban, but if the Cougars truly are trying to eliminate distractions, they’ll be able to brush this off, or ignore it altogether.

I won’t begin to guess who Halliday’s sources are, but former players – especially those as prominent as a record-setting QB who grew up just down the road – are usually still well-connected within the program and maintain relationships with various staff members (equipment, training, video, etc).

I’d assume – I’d hope – Halliday wouldn’t share this if he thought there was even the slightest chance he was misinformed. Why tarnish your own reputation?

While this is an intriguing development that, if true, sheds more light on Claeys’ relationship with members of his defensive staff – and gives us some important background information that wasn’t available previously – I’m not sure it’s much more than that.

Claeys is no longer in the picture, McBath is part of the solution to fix the defense, and by all accounts, there’s more conviction in everything the Cougars are doing on that side of the ball. Halliday’s comments provide context, sure, but I don’t believe they’ll prove damaging for anyone involved.

Changes (especially with a college team) always have some built in momentum. Do you think that there will be steady defensive improvements after the small improvements last week?

– Jennifer D.

Coaches and players were under the impression the defense improved, and maybe that’s valid, but you could also play devil’s advocate and make a pretty decent argument for the opposite. The Cougars, once again, gave up 38 points, more total yards (532 against ASU vs. 526 against Utah) and did so against an offense that’s statistically much worse than the one they faced in Salt Lake City. The Utes score 34.8 points per game, while the Sun Devils are at just 25.3.

I will concede the first quarter of Saturday’s game against ASU looked much better and cleaner than any individual period the Cougars have played since the first half of the UCLA game, or even since the second half of the Houston game. Not since the first half against the Bruins had WSU’s defense blanked somebody in a quarter, so we’ll call it a solid step in the right direction. If WSU can channel what worked in that first quarter – getting pressure on the quarterback seemed to be the main thing – and apply it to the rest of the game, I believe the Cougars have a chance to to turn the corner.

But, the positivity that seemed to radiate from WSU players after another gut-wrenching loss is surely something to build on. I’m sure the recent skid has taken a toll on every defensive player, but it’s not showing in their body language. So, yes, the Cougars still have plenty of work to do when it comes to fixing schemes, perhaps making some more adjustments on the depth chart, etc. But, at least they’re focused on football-related matters, rather than fixing morale, confidence or things that could be much more detrimental.

And I do believe there’s something to players needing time to settle into roles. Leach said Monday, “we simplified a lot of things, which I think was beneficial, but we have to kind of get used to that, we have to keep doing it for awhile.”

In other words, things don’t change in the blink of an eye. Skyler Thomas has been a safety before, but he’s never played the position next to Bryce Beekman, so I’d imagine it could take some time for those two to iron out communication and get on the same page. Doing it in a game is obviously much different than doing it in practice.

Why do we continue to win the toss and choose to receive? That is a loser move/mentality. The free turnover mid game is way more valuable. Utah & ASU scored twice in a row turning momentum.

– B. Beck

Generally teams defer and in hindsight, perhaps the Cougars would’ve done so in both of the games you mentioned in order to eliminate the momentum swings – one of which was obviously more costly than the other. Coaches have different have philosophies when it comes to the coin toss. Some prefer to set a tone by putting the offense on the field first, while others might simply choose to put their best unit on the field first.

I wasn’t sure what Leach’s take on this was, so I took your question straight to the head man.

His response: “It’s a variety of things. Weather can enter into it. The nature of the other team and what they like to do can enter into it. What you feel like your strengths may be can enter into it. Most people defer. I’m not as quick to defer as a lot of people are.”

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