College football is back. Not the same as it left us at the turn of the year – thanks realignment – but back nonetheless. Which is comforting. Unless, maybe, your team happens to have its opener on the Pac-12 Network, which was the case with Washington State on Saturday night.
The broadcast, with J.B. Long on the play-by-play and former Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf as analyst, had no impact on the Cougars’ harder-than-expected 24-17 victory over the visitors from Idaho. But it had a lot to do with the enjoyment experienced for those watching at home.
At least the broadcast duo was in Pullman, which isn’t as guaranteed as it once was. And the two kept the focus on the action, from WSU’s early mistakes, the Vandals returning the largesse before halftime and the Cougars’ good-enough second half.
What they saw
• We start with the player who everyone connected with Washington State knows well, from his time as the school’s quarterback through his short NFL career through his post-NFL demons. In his third act, Leaf has launched a career in broadcasting.
Though still learning, Leaf is really good at times. Especially when he breaks down quarterback play and uses his experience with it to be brutally blunt. He was late in the first half and the target was first-year Washington State starter, transfer Cameron Ward.
The Cougars had tied the game at 10 but squandered an up-to-then rare red-zone opportunity. One clear opportunity was lost, Leaf felt, because Ward had made a poor decision to throw and take advantage of the defense and call a run.
That led to the former NFL No. 2 draft pick to state a bit later there were “a lot of conversations to be had on the offensive side of the ball” at halftime. At the center of it? Ward’s first-half performance, which Leaf described as “incredibly undisciplined.” That’s what the person watching at home needs to hear and an opinion most watching wouldn’t recognize. But Leaf can, and he can also explain what’s behind it.
“I felt he got out of rhythm a little bit,” Leaf said when Long asked about Ward early in the third quarter. “I figure, and I hope, he’ll be more disciplined in the scheme in the second half.”
• Leaf’s redemption story is so admirable, any criticism of the quarterback who led the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl in 67 years isn’t received well around Pullman. But as an analyst, he is still learning his craft. And it shows.
Like many inexperienced analysts, something the Pac-12 Network has in abundance, he relies way too often on clichés, from “young freshman” to “the shoe is on the other foot” to “the bang for their buck” when describing a play or situation.
And he occasionally seems to miss the action, as occurred in the second quarter when Renard Bell was called for a drive-stifling offensive pass interference penalty on what would have been a 12-yard reception by Orion Peters. Asked about it by Long, Leaf spent the next half-minute describing why Bell was called for a hold and not the actual early contact for which he was cited.
Such issues – including the occasional player misidentification – usually fade as experience builds, though there are a few Pac-12 analysts who disprove that theory.
What we saw
• Former Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott made the decision in 2012 to keep the conference’s television arm in-house instead of partnering with one of the major sports networks like ESPN or Fox. Like many of Scott’s decisions, it was an expensive mistake.
The network has suffered from the inability to attract distribution platforms, such as DirecTV, and never had the reach, or payout, of the Big Ten Network or the SEC’s partnership with ESPN. And there was the expense of having a San Francisco headquarters and building everything from scratch. There is no way it will survive in the next round of media rights under discussion right now. At least not how it is currently built.
When you can actually find the network, the cost-cutting that has occurred the past couple of years shows in each broadcast. Midway through the second quarter, the score line at the bottom of the screen was just gibberish, with letters running over each other. That doesn’t happen at other networks.
Long, however, is about as good as the network offers, which is to be expected considering he’s been with it since the beginning and he’s the radio voice of the Los Angeles Rams.
• The game wasn’t Jake Dickert’s first leading WSU, but the first since the interim tag was removed after last season. It was also Jason Eck’s first as Vandals head coach. One, Dickert, is a defensive guy. Eck shines on offense. In that regard, Dickert (and coordinator Brian Ward) got the best of it, as the aggressive Cougars defense dominated the line of scrimmage most of the game. WSU had seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, held the Vandals to 4 of 17 on third down and 269 yards.
But the UI defense, with its ability to force fumbles (Washington State lost three), earned at least a draw with Eric Morris’ offense.