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Jacob Thorpe: Did conspiring Cougars quit on Jake Dickert? No, they were simply outplayed by Arizona.

By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review

If I were still a reporter, I would not be allowed to say this, but as a columnist I’m untouchable, so here is a bit of opinion: I think the labor movement in the United States was and is a good thing. If you aren’t sure why, then I suggest you read “The Cold Millions” by Spokane’s own Jess Walter.

Given that admitted bias, to the Washington State football team I say, “Solidarity, comrades! Bread and roses! I support your decision to join the auto workers strike and refusal to play football last weekend!”

Sure, a silent boycott by the WSU football team seems a little kooky. But is it the craziest conspiracy theory you have considered following the team’s abysmal 44-6 to Arizona on Saturday?

The online Cougars community seems to have coalesced around two primary narrative arcs of fan fiction following the game. Either head coach Jake Dickert made a clandestine trip to East Lansing, Michigan, where he either accepted the Michigan State head coaching job or at the very least interviewed. This bit of midseason ship-jumping was then discovered by the team, so the theory goes, and so the locker room’s fragile sense of cohesion was shattered.

Believing this requires the conspiracist to ignore that WSU actually came out pretty hot against Arizona, scoring the first touchdown and making some impressive plays on defense. Furthermore, while I think highly of Dickert as a coach and believe he would do well at Michigan State if hired, we are talking about a school that could literally quadruple his salary.

The 40-year-old third-year head coach is not at the point in his career where a program like that is flying him out under the cover of night to interview midseason. Why would it? WSU could still have a bad season, and MSU will always be able to offer Dickert more money and resources than the Cougars could match.

Frankly, such paranoia is unbecoming of a fanbase that has watched its team lose to Eastern Washington and Portland State in back-to-back seasons, then gone on to win eight or more games each time.

The other prominent theory is that new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle has been unable to recognize that teams are pulling defenders off the line of scrimmage, clogging passing lanes and confounding a play-caller for whom it has simply not occurred to check-in to a run.

I mean, maybe. I learned a long time ago that there is little that we viewers notice that isn’t well known to the coaches who spend hours a day looking at film to find minuscule schematic advantages. These are critiques that also followed Mike Leach’s Air Raid offenses after bad games, though mysteriously evaporated after good games.

Since the simplest explanation is usually the right one, here is what probably happened to the Cougars on Saturday.

In college football, there are a few elite teams that dispatch of all but the toughest opponents, and a few terrible teams for which losing begets losing and so they almost never win. All the other teams rest somewhere in the middle.

Some weeks they play well, some weeks they don’t play well, and so they win or lose against teams against which they are evenly matched. Remember, too, that these are young people with lives outside of football whose personal dramas can affect their athletic performance.

In a game against two evenly matched opponents, a few breaks can make the difference. But what happens when there are a lot of breaks? As part of my service to you, the reader, I rewatched last Saturday’s game against the better-than-mediocre Arizona Wildcats.

You know what I saw? Fast Arizona players breaking one tackle before making decisive plays. Over and over. Too many of those and the game will get away from you quickly. Also, the kind of plays where a slightly better initial tackle would have made a massive difference.

I saw the WSU offense respond poorly, to be sure. And yes, a lot of that is play-calling. I saw the Cougars sense the Wildcats piling up explosive plays and pressing too hard to respond in kind, leading to disasters like back-up quarterback John Mateer’s interception on a double-pass.

It turned into the kind of loss that causes minds to wander to extreme explanations. Surely, something massive has changed for a team that just 1½ weeks ago was 4-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country to fall so hard.

I don’t think the Cougars have changed a whole lot in the past 1½ weeks. I think these things happen to almost every team. And the good news is, with a nationally televised game against No. 9 Oregon this weekend, WSU can put these theories to rest just as quickly as they formed.