Sep 7, 2013; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich (center) reacts in the second half. The Ducks defeated the Virginia Cavaliers 59-10 at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Both players and coaches for Washington State (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) can’t wait to get back on the field and play the game of football they are so passionate about.
No question the Cougs will be put to the test facing the No. 2 ranked Oregon Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) this coming Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, OR at 7pm (televised on FoxSports 1).
How good are the Ducks midway through the 2013 season? Their starting quarterback and legit Heisman candidate sophomore Marcus Mariota played in the fourth quarter of a game for the first time this year last week against Washington.
When former Duck Coach Chip Kelly left for the NFL following last season, the rest of the Pac-12 was hoping there might be a period of adjustment for Coach Mark Helfrich moving up from his offensive coordinator position. Those hopes have been dashed quicker than the tempo of Oregon’s offense.
So why would WSU actually be looking forward to traveling to Eugene to play in one of the most hostile arenas for opponents in all of college football?
The simple answer is Washington State is raring to compete at the highest level and prove they are a better team than the one that spun out of control in the fourth quarter last Saturday night.
And for those of you who answered, “Because it’s the only game on the schedule this week”, pat yourself on the back. You are not only correct, but are starting to get WSU Coach Mike Leach.
Oct 12, 2013; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach reacts after a call on the field against the Oregon State Beavers during the first half at Martin Stadium. The Beavers beat the Cougars 52-24. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Many wonder how the Cougars move forward after their stunning implosion to let the Oregon State game get away from them given the facts leading up to that point.
“We dominated the third quarter and all we had to do is duplicate that in the fourth. I thought it was the best third quarter we’ve had this season,”lamented Coach Leach during his weekly media conference.
You have to believe a driving motivation for the Cougs is to replicate their efforts in the first six games this season which were characterized by 60-minutes of constant, intense, aggressive high level football.
If Washington State is to earn a win Saturday night, they will not only have to commit to putting out their best effort, they will have to do so with nary a flaw.
Will the odds catch up with Oregon? In other words, can the Ducks continue to play nearly flawless football?
Oct 12, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) holds onto the ball during the game against the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium. Oregon defeated Washington 45-24. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Mariota is the top ranked quarterback in the Pac-12. He has an amazing ratio of 17 touchdown passes to zero interceptions.
Eventually Mariota will make a mistake.
The WSU defensive secondary has been torched consistently over the past three games. Leach is very clear in boiling down how they can stop that streak despite going up against a juggernaut in the form of the Oregon passing attack.
“We need to be more disciplined with our eyes. The majority of the yards and the big hits are big explosive plays. It’s not play after play.”
Helfrich knows the Cougs are potentially a very competent defensive ball club.
“Their defensive line is outstanding. As a group, they’re playing as well as anybody,” appraised Coach Helfrich. “I think Joe Salave’a does a great job coaching those guys and intimidating the other coaches.”
When Oregon has the ball, the front seven for WSU will be working to accomplish something rarely achieved in 2013. Over the first six games for Oregon, opponents have logged a mere five sacks.
The Ducks have dominated the line of scrimmage for a number of reasons, as pointed out by Coach Helfrich.
“It’s a combination effort. A significant part of that is the offensive line. Part of it is the scheme. Part of it is the quarterback. Part of it is the running backs.”
Compounding the challenge posed by the effective play by their OL, Helfrich warns, “The Washington game (last Saturday) was their best game as a unit by far and their most physical game as a unit by far. That’s our new standard.”
Washington State counters with an OL in front of their quarterback that has steadily improved each and every week.
So let’s talk about the elephant in the room I’ve been avoiding.
Oct 12, 2013; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday (12) drops back for a pass against the Oregon State Beavers at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Coach Leach has a long history of grooming raw talent into record breaking, nationally ranked quarterbacks. There have been many vocal WSU fans calling for backup Austin Apodaca to step up to the starting QB slot. To those on the outside looking in, here’s what Leach offers as a reminder.
“I’ve had some of the best quarterbacks in the country and I can’t think of any of them that didn’t have a bad game or at some point in their career one like that (last week).”
Heck, during Leach’s Monday presser, a radio personality was overly anxious to get his chance at turning the media conference into a radio interview on this very subject. That’s about as smart as trying to sell ocean front property in Phoenix to Donald Trump.
When asked if he considered pulling Halliday and replacing him with Apodaca or at least getting him in for a series in the second quarter, Leach paused then replied, “No, not necessarily. If we do though, you’ll be the first to know. Make sure you leave your number with Bill (Stevens, WSU SID) so I can get it to you as quick as I can. But whatever you do, don’t tell Oregon. You know what I mean?”
As a little background to specifying running out a backup QB in the second quarter, former WSU Coach Paul Wulff used to employ that model.
Attempting to regain some form of respectability, a follow-up comment only further embarrassed. The poor fellow interjected light-heartedly, “Maybe you could Tweet it out?” Dripping with sarcasm, Leach snapped back, “Yeah, I’ll try to get on that, too.”
Point here is simply this.
Coach Leach might not be as forthcoming as other head coaches about his methods and strategies. Don’t confuse his cloud of mystery as a cloak for incompetence easily second guessed.
The old adage “youth will be served” may be the storyline following the WSU vs. Oregon Saturday evening. In the case of the Cougs, Leach offers the reminder, “We’re playing with 27 guys that are sophomores or younger.”
There will come a point where the Cougs approach their potential. Coach Helfrich is cognizant of that fact. “They’re playing a ton better than their numbers show up. Watch their film, look at their body types, look at how they play, they’ll wake you up in a hurry.”
The players and coaches of Washington State are single-mindedly focused on moving their Pac-12 road record to 3-0 this season.
WASHINGTON STATE NOTES
- When asked about the possibility of a Washington State student walking on to the team, Coach Leach advised to verify eligibility first through the WSU Athletic Department. The Cougar football staff takes a look at about 200 student-athletes a year to earn a spot on the roster as a walk-on. Leach hinted at what qualities it takes to secure a roster slot saying, “(Be) big and fast. Also, (we look at) long snappers and always punters and kickers.”
- Leach posed an observation about a wide receiver on the rise. “I think Vince (Mayle), in the last couple of games, has emerged as an explosive player. He continues to get better and he has a physical quality to what he does.”