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Washington State rewind: Uncharacteristic turnovers, continued tackling woes in 67-63 loss to UCLA

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 22, 2019, 10:52 p.m.

Eight days after denouncing the state of California for its poor infrastructure, Washington State coach Mike Leach will spend the next week evaluating the infrastructure of his own team in the wake of a 67-63 upset loss to UCLA in which the visitors erased a 32-point deficit to record one of the most unlikely wins in school history, and guarantee one of the most embarrassing defeats in Cougar history.

The highest-scoring Pac-12 Conference game ever produced 130 points and 1,377 yards of offense, but we don’t have the time or column inches to provide every mind-numbing stat and factoid from this late-night marathon on the Palouse, so we’ll unpack a few of the important ones as we analyze what went right, and then terribly wrong, for Washington State in the first loss of the 2019 season.

In this week’s rewind, we focus on turnovers, defense and, one of the few bright spots, the rapport between Anthony Gordon and Easop Winston Jr. that’s contributed to eight WSU touchdowns in four games.

1. Key takeaway(s)

Leach had a few zingers at the podium afterward, but it was sophomore running back Max Borghi who probably had the most compelling quote in a postgame press conference that was much shorter than usual.

Turnovers may not have been the main culprit Saturday night, but WSU’s four fumbles and two interceptions continually gave UCLA the ball back with ideal field position. The Bruins hadn’t scored more than 14 points in a game this season, but they scored 29 off turnovers in the upset win.

“I think it’s honestly practice habits,” Borghi said. “We need to take practice more serious with ball security. We work it every day, but it’s at the end of practice and it’s almost like guys are going through the motions.”

Borghi, of course, wasn’t a victim of the turnover plague, and next to quarterback Anthony Gordon, he was probably WSU’s most consistent performer, with 15 carries for 124 rushing yards and two catches for 80 receiving yards and a crucial touchdown that put the Cougars on top 60-56 midway through the fourth quarter.

In fact, Borghi has only fumbled once in 17 games with the Cougars. Or, probably a better way to put it, once every 179 touches. By comparison, WSU lost a fumble once every 20 offensive plays Saturday. The Cougars hadn’t turned the ball over via fumble once through the first three games of the season.

As Borghi alluded to above, the Cougars go through a ball security circuit near the end of every practice. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers run one-by-one through a line with a football in their arms. Meanwhile, coaches holding wooden sticks poke the players as they run by, trying to pry the ball out.

“I thought we had lousy ball security, although we work on it every day,” Leach said. “I thought we had horrible security and I thought they did a good job of attacking the ball. … As coaches, we did not get through to them despite drills, talk, practice, to take care of the ball. They’ve gotten sloppy with it.”

So, if the nature of the ball security drills doesn’t change next week, the duration and surely the intensity of them will.

2. Tackling troubles

This might as well be a recurring segment of the weekly rewind.

The Cougars didn’t tackle well two weeks ago against Northern Colorado. They were faulty in the first half last week against Houston. And they were at their worst in the third and fourth quarter Saturday against UCLA.

On Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s 94-yard scoring pass to Demetric Felton that cut the deficit to 49-38, the UCLA running back/receiver blew right past two WSU defenders who could’ve made a stronger effort to bring the ball-carrier down. Linebacker Travion Brown didn’t have a great angle on Felton, but he got just one hand on the white uniform before Felton shoved him away. Marcus Strong took a strong stiff-arm from the UCLA junior as he cruised to the end zone..

For a few of the UCLA touchdowns, there wasn’t an anthracite-uniformed player in the vicinity, so WSU’s coaches will want to rework strategy and scheme this week when they aren’t drilling home tackling fundamentals. But Leach insisted it was his team’s inability to make a routine takedown, rather than UCLA’s play-calling, that allowed the Bruins to find so much success in the second half.

“I don’t think so,” Leach said. “I just think they don’t tackle. Either that or they’re not very tough. Maybe a combination of both.”

Remember, WSU lost its best player from all three levels of the defense, and while the Cougars won’t use it as a scapegoat, they looked like a group that could’ve used Logan Tago’s edge, Peyton Pelluer’s leadership and Jalen Thompson’s speed.

Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei was the only defensive player made available to reporters after the game and the big nose tackle seemed to think, one-third of the way through the season, the mistakes of the Cougars are still correctable.

“Most definitely, always room for improvement,” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “As a defense, that’s what we’re taught to do. We have to tackle all the time and we left a few out there and they were able to score.”

3. City connection

Chin up, it wasn’t all bad.

If WSU can make some quick fixes on defense, and move on from the turnover woes, the Cougars are still capable of putting together a nice season. There isn’t much room for error now, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how the Pac-12 race will shake out after a few surprising results this weekend – USC-Utah and Colorado-Arizona State adding to the Week 4 madness.

So the Cougars should trudge forward without looking back, if they can help it.

We’re not sure how sustainable the defense is and we don’t know how the special teams will regroup, but I think we have a pretty good bead on the offense after four weeks. Even with the spate of turnovers, WSU hung 63 points on UCLA Saturday, and the Cougars are one of only two teams in the country averaging more than 600 yards per game.

No. 1 Oklahoma (676.7 ypg) and No. 2 WSU (605.3) share UCLA as a common opponent, but the Sooners and Cougars are still the golden standard for now. WSU’s scoring offense also ranks fifth nationally, at 52.8 ppg.

Connor Halliday, Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew all put up ridiculous numbers in their own right, but Gordon’s on pace to have the most prolific single season in history and, with an FBS-leading 21 passing touchdowns, would need to average 2.4 per game the rest of the way to match the Pac-12 record of 43 set by Washington’s Jake Browning.

Gordon’s top receiver has been Easop Winston Jr., the redshirt senior who started his career with the quarterback at City College of San Francisco. Winston Jr. will be haunted by his late fumble, but the receiver caught four touchdown passes Saturday to give him eight on the year – as many as he had through 13 games in 2018. The eight TDs lead the country and Winston would need seven in the final eight (or more) games to tie Gabe Marks’ school record. The Pac-12 record of 17 receiving TDs was set by UW’s John Ross in 2016.

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