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Washington State rewind: Mike Leach calls out ‘soft’ Cougs

SALT LAKE CITY – Two months ago, when media members voted on the Pac-12 preseason poll, picking Washington State to finish behind Oregon, Washington and Stanford in the North Division, many in the Cougars’ camp considered it another oversight from writers who spend too much time scouring through recruiting rankings and show too much favoritism to the conference’s traditional powers.

To their credit, the Cougars have overachieved in this poll more often than not under eighth-year coach Mike Leach.

But perhaps the media finally got it right.

With consecutive losses to UCLA and Utah, WSU now sits at the bottom of the Pac-12, and the Cougars need to do some overachieving the rest of the way just to live up to the media’s preseason expectation.

A 38-13 loss to the 19th-ranked Utes on Saturday night in Salt Lake City unearthed a new set of problems for the Cougars, who take a much-needed bye week before traveling to Arizona State on Oct. 12.

We visit a few of the bigger concerns in the latest edition of the WSU rewind.

1. Role reversal

Utah’s passing game put Washington State’s to shame. While there are dozens of ways to dissect it, here’s what you need to know: the Utes threw the ball 19 fewer times than the Cougars but picked up 80 more yards through the air. While Anthony Gordon and WSU averaged just 8.4 yards per play; Tyler Huntley and Utah gouged the Cougars for 15.9.

Gordon threw one touchdown and one interception. His 252 yards marked the first time this season he finished under 300 yards. Huntley threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions, finishing with more than 300 yards for the first time this season. He had 334.

Three Utah pass plays went for 40 yards or longer, including two 50-yarders, while WSU connected on just one explosive reception – a 21-yard pass from Gordon to Renard Bell.

A week earlier, the Utes’ defensive secondary struggled to contain USC’s Air Raid, but managed to stifle WSU’s version, and almost every one of Gordon’s pass attempts was contested, if not broken up, by a Utah cornerback or safety. The Utes, active and aggressive all game in pass coverage, had 12 total breakups. Unlike WSU’s first four opponents, they didn’t give the Cougars’ talented receivers many opportunities to turn short gains into long ones.

“We knew what we were coming up against,” Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “(Gordon) threw for nine touchdowns last week, and we looked at it as an opportunity in the secondary and as a defense. We didn’t do anything too fancy, but went out there and executed the game plan like we always do.”

In contrast, WSU’s defensive backs were disoriented from the start, missing coverage assignments and losing footraces with quicker Utah receivers. The Utes hit on a variety of passes underneath, but also had success going over the top.

As is customary, WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys didn’t address the media afterward and the Cougars didn’t bring any DBs to the postgame press conference, but coach Mike Leach suggested the corners and safeties weren’t getting their calls in from the sideline properly – or fast enough – prompting them to freelance and play “streetball.”

“We weren’t even close,” Leach said. “I think we’re soft, I think we go out there and play streetball and do our own thing. I don’t think we listen to the call necessarily. Then I think guys just run around and do what they want to do, and I think we have to examine how we’re getting the calls in, because I think a certain number we got them in slow.”

2. ‘Max’ing out

WSU’s offense, which averaged 52.7 points through the first month, will take a fair amount of heat for its lowest-scoring game since a 37-3 loss to Cal in 2017.

Gordon will take the brunt of the criticism, as will the offensive line, which committed six penalties. The receivers weren’t at their absolute best, either, often unable to separate from Utah’s DBs or spring big plays after the catch.

But given the workload he was allotted, the Cougars couldn’t have squeezed much more out of Max Borghi, who shouldn’t shoulder any of the blame for what WSU was unable to do on offense.

If anything, Borghi could’ve used a few more touches, carrying the ball only eight times in a game that was played underneath constant, at times heavy, rain showers. The sophomore running back finished with 51 yards rushing on eight carries and was also the most effective player in the passing game, hauling in nine balls for 70 yards.

For the game, Borghi averaged 7.1 yards per carry, and he was the only Cougar to surpass the 100-yard barrier.

Afterward, the running back was asked about his workload and if he thought he was underutilized. Borghi, never one to throw teammates or coaches under the bus, said he won’t question the play calls, but did indicate there may have been a few more opportunities to change the play at the line of scrimmage, based on Utah’s defensive formations.

“I’m not going to argue with the coach’s decisions, I’m just going to make the most of my opportunities when I get the opportunities,” Borghi said. “There was definitely a couple of checks we could’ve checked into a run, I felt like, but it is what it is.”

If Borghi had a mulligan, he may have used it early in the fourth quarter. With the Cougars stationed three yards from the end zone, trailing 31-13, the running back caught a short pass from Gordon on fourth down and had one man to beat, but couldn’t evade senior safety Julian Blackmon, who made a sound play to stop Borghi on the 2-yard line.

Borghi had scored a touchdown in five straight games before missing out Saturday, but went over 500 yards of total offense for the season and continues to be WSU’s most efficient skill player, averaging 7.7 yards per carry and 10.9 yards per reception.

3. ‘We didn’t fight it’

Leach reiterated multiple times during his five-minute postgame interview the largest issues his team faces right now are not tactical, but rather psychological.

Missing one assignment is understandable, but Leach doesn’t have much leeway for a player who misses a second or third because the initial mistake is still looming.

Perhaps the Cougars are lacking a few bona fide leaders on either side of the ball who could bring the group together when the sledding gets tough. WSU lost a few of those players when Gardner Minshew, Peyton Pelluer, Hunter Dale and Jalen Thompson left, and the absence of a strong, authoratitive voice has been noticeable both in practice and game settings.

“I don’t know if it’s that, I think it’s more individual than that,” Leach said. “I think we’ve got a bunch of free agents running aroud there that think they’re pretty special, and then as soon as something doesn’t go their way, they want to pout. So, I think it’s more collectively soft.”

Leach didn’t anticipate that happening, because the Cougars were diligent workers during summer workouts and in August, when they regrouped for preseason camp. But Leach theorized that his returning players spent too much time reflecting on last season’s results – a historic 11-win campaign that culminated with a win in the Alamo Bowl – and read too many of their own press clippings during the offseason.

“I really think over the offseason, despite the fact we had some pretty hard work – and we did work pretty hard in the offseason, and we did work pretty hard in camp – then I think we get to the season and some collection of sitting around the apartments all the time, talking about how great we’re going to be, eventually it’ll evolve to how easy it’s going to be, and then as soon as we face resistance, we don’t even fight it,” Leach said. We didn’t fight it today.”

The byproduct is a team that doesn’t handle adversity well. Saturday’s game was proof. The Cougars fell into a second-quarter deficit and never recovered.

“Then instead what we did is pout,” Leach said. “So then we pout, they go, ‘Oh look, he’s pouting, somebody’s going to feel sorry for him.’ No, they don’t think that. That’s not what we think. They think, ‘Oh, you’re a really soft person,’ and coaching-wise we fail to get through to them. I didn’t see too much pouting among coaches, but collectively starting with me, we fail to get through to them. I mean, we’ve let them evolve into a soft team, and they are soft.”