Nov. 23, 2012; Pullman, WA, USA; The Washington State Cougars football team takes the field before a game against the Washington Huskies at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Two themes dominated Washington State Cougar football this past season. The team’s won-loss record took a step backward in Coach Mike Leach’s first year in Pullman. And if Cougar football was going to return to winning 10-games year after year, there had to be a change in attitude.
“The biggest thing is our mentality,” said Leach during a media session in the midst of an 8-game losing streak last year few expected. “We’re a mentally weak team… As coaches, we’ve got to change that. For players, there has to be a certain amount of accountability.”
No question there were other issues needing attention from Leach and his staff if the Crimson and Gray were to become a perennial bowl participant. WSU must upgrade the athletic skills and size of their roster to effectively compete in the Pac-12. Then there is the matter of both offense and defensive units learning a new system.
Without a change in attitude, improvement on other fronts become moot and Cougar football will flounder once again in 2013.
Coach Leach led his squad into the off-season on a high note with the beginnings of a shift in attitude last November. WSU staged an emotional come-from-way-behind overtime victory in their rivalry game with the UW, the Apple Cup. The Cougs never quit on themselves and played with the expectation of victory.
It was easy to judge from the outside looking in there was a series of steps being taken to craft a new outlook for young men committing to play Cougar football. The most visible sign indicating a continuing shift following a dismal 3-9 campaign in 2012 was the exodus of a number of student-athletes from the roster who still had eligibility.
Signs of change continued to appear through spring camp, both on and off the field.
By the time the team played the annual Crimson and Gray scrimmage in Spokane, the offense was showing improvement. Granted, there were only portions of the Air Raid scheme created by Coach Leach on display at Joe Albi Stadium. Even with significant limitations imposed on the Cougar D during the final spring scrimmage, running the Air Raid continues to be a work in progress.
One big step for the team was clear in Spokane and continues to be on display during fall camp down in Lewiston. The WSU football roster is a team. Simple to label the roster a “team”. Difficult to make it a reality and create a culture which breeds success.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the decision to move fall camp away from Pullman. The ten days of practice and scrimmage on natural grass looks to be another step in the evolution of a change in attitude for Cougar football. By isolating the team, Coach Leach promoted an atmosphere focused and bringing every man on his roster closer together as an entity destined to win football games.
Coach Leach has mentored a leader for his offense, fourth-year junior Connor Halliday. Leach knows what works when it comes to getting the best out of young men. He knows what it takes for a squad to succeed in team sport.
Sep 14, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday (12) before a game against the UNLV Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Talking about team leadership and Halliday, Leach had this to say, “The best way is to get it (is) from players because players are around each other all the time. They live with each other. They spend time together. So off the field you can really magnify that. There’s a lot less things to handle this year than last year because our players are taking responsibility for themselves.”
On the field, the role of team leaders has shifted as well. “Somebody will huddle everybody up and get their attention so it’s not constantly the coaches getting their attention. In the end, that’s quite a bit more powerful,” explains Leach.
Third-year sophomore linebacker, Tana Pritchard spoke recently about his perception of a shift in attitude. “We’re getting better and we’re competing. Every rep (means) everything to us. That’s how it’s got to be if we want to win. That’s what the top schools do and that’s what we’re starting to do. It’s a new kind of environment around here and we’re changing it.”
Sep 14, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Washington State Cougars offensive linesman Elliott Bosch (60) before a game against the UNLV Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
“We’re moving in a new direction and changing the culture,” asserts senior offensive lineman Elliott Bosch. Bosch went on to build his case by comparing last year’s fall camp and practices saying, “Last year if we started off rough we would have finished the practice on a bad note. We wouldn’t have been able to pick each other up. (This year) everyone has come together more (as a team).”
One guy challenging Halliday and trying to earn the starting job at quarterback, redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca echoes what seems to be the prevailing outlook for this Cougar roster.
“The biggest improvement is confidence,” says Apodaca. “ In spring, you could tell… we just really weren’t 100% confident in what we were doing. We’re ten times more confident (now) than we were at the end of spring (practice). We are finally realizing that we want to turn this place around. We can do it. We have the people that can do it. We have the coaches that can lead us. We’re realizing that we can compete with a lot of people.”
Sept. 29, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars nose tackle Ioane Gauta (95) makes the tackle for a loss against Oregon Ducks running back Ayele Forde (30) during the second half at CenturyLink Field. The Ducks would go onto win the game by a final score of 51-26. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Continuing to sing a now familiar refrain, senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta put it this way. “We’ve got a lot to prove from last year.” He went on to say, “I still believe in this team. I know we can do just about anything. I know we can do it. We have to have guys who can sustain that energy, day in and day out.”
Tuesday afternoon Coach Leach and his team will return to the familiar trappings of Rogers Field for another week of fall camp before shifting gears to prepare for their season opener against Auburn.
WSU is beefed up.
The roster isn’t all about size either. There are a number of incoming first year players with the talent to earn playing time this year.
The most important question for this edition of Cougar football is both simple and basic.
Does this team expect to win and commit to playing their best football for 60-minutes over the course of a 12-game schedule?
From this writer’s view, Cougar Nation will see a change in attitude and significant improvement by their beloved team in 2013.