PULLMAN – Mike Leach is Washington State’s head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. On game days, those last two titles are probably more meaningful than the first.
When WSU has possession of the ball, Leach has a finger in just about everything that takes place, sending in play calls, managing substitutions and offering sideline tips when the opportunities arise. Then, as soon as the Cougars score or return ball back to the opponent, Leach hands the whole operation over to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
But at an early juncture of WSU’s 59-17 rout of Northern Colorado on Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium, the eighth-year coach threw a wrench into his organizational structure, signaled for a timeout and herded every defensive player into a huddle near the home sideline.
The exact words Leach used are not known – and perhaps not suitable for all audiences – but the message sure seemed to hit a tone.
The Cougars had conceded first downs on three of their past four plays when Leach called timeout for his sideline intervention, but when they came out of the huddle, linebacker Jahad Woods hunted down Jullen Ison, clawed the ball out of the running back’s hands and watched teammate Ron Stone Jr. leap on it.
“One thing, their offense was kind of in a rhythm, so we wanted to break that,” Leach said. “Then the other thing, it seemed like we were kind of overrunning some things and wanted to just get refocused, you know.”
Though WSU had far too many defensive lapses against a team picked to finish dead last in the Big Sky Conference, the mistakes were often followed by plays that quickly shifted momentum back the Cougars’ way.
Such as when Stone was ejected from the game for a targeting call after officials alleged the “Rush” linebacker made helmet-to-helmet contact with UNC quarterback Jacob Knipp after the play. It seemed to tick the Cougars off as much as it did the fans, because on the next play, Bryce Beekman recovered a Milo Hall fumble that appeared to have been caused by Karson Block.
The Cougars salvaged assignment errors by forcing turnovers – four in total – and the offense made sure the defense never had to sweat, generating 594 total yards and eight touchdowns. But that doesn’t mean the players in Leach’s first-quarter huddle won’t cringe a few times when they review film next week.
“I think we did below average,” Woods said. “I think we need to do better next week. We have a really good opponent in Houston and if we want to beat them, we have to tackle better, play better overall as a defense.”
Northern Colorado accumulated 355 yards of offense – nearly 40 more than FBS opponent New Mexico State did last week – and rushed for more than 200 yards.
But the Cougars pinned down another blowout win because Anthony Gordon completed 31 of 39 passes for 464 yards and four touchdowns, hitting Brandon Arconado most often, and former City College of San Francisco teammate Easop Winston Jr. most often in the end zone. Arconado reeled in a career-high eight passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Winston was responsible for the other 100-yard game, catching six passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Good as those three were, sophomore running back Max Borghi may have been the best player on offense. Borghi’s yardage wasn’t substantial, but he scored a career-high three touchdowns, rushing for two and reeling in another.
Gordon has completed 60 of 74 passes in two starts, with 884 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception – thrown on a missed read in the third quarter Saturday – and Borghi has accounted for four touchdowns, with 190 all-purpose yards.
“It was my receivers who almost scored those touchdowns,” said Borghi, who didn’t do much more than finish the job on two short-yardage scores after Gordon and the receivers put the Cougars close to the goal line. “I’ll give those to them, it was the O-line, they blocked well, and I kind of popped it in. It’s easy to pop those in. It’s something I have to do when we get down to the goal line, but yeah, it was exciting to score three.”
Woods led the defense with 10 tackles – one short of his career high – and two other middle linebackers, Justus Rogers and Travion Brown, each had eight. Willie Taylor III, Nnamdi Oguayo and Dallas Hobbs were also credited with forced fumbles, while Thomas and Block also recovered fumbles.
“Any time we take the ball over, it’s a good thing,” Woods said. “We practice it all week, every day, taking the ball away. How many did we have, like, four? Yeah, this is what we preach when we practice all the time, taking the ball away, and we did that.”
“Coach puts a big emphasis on getting the ball out in practice,” nose tackle Lamonte McDougle said. “We’ve got to get at least four or we’re running.”
The Cougars may be running for other reasons this week – for one, because they couldn’t adequately stop UNC from running all over them – but maybe, by producing four turnovers, they escaped at least some of the midweek conditioning that was coming their way.
“For (UNC’s) running, we can clean that up,” McDougle said. Then, a guarantee: “We’re gonna clean that up this week. That won’t be a problem.”
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