Dec 21, 2013; Albuquerque, NM, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday (12) throws a pass in the second quarter against the Colorado State Rams during the Gildan New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The college bowl season for Pac-12 schools is complete. The grand finale to another year of conference competition produced nine of the twelve teams invited to post season play and six came away with wins.
For Washington State Cougar fans, 2013 was a roller coaster ride emotionally. The Cougs were good. Then they weren’t. Then they were. Then…well, you get the point.
What might be gleaned from the final results when looking forward to the 2014 season? The simple answer is: Plenty.
The Cougs imploded in their first bowl game appearance since 2003. Are you tired of hearing that?
Though this writer has grown weary of the over-used description of how WSU, captained by Mike Leach, moved beyond their regular schedule, it is entirely accurate and apropos.
Washington State moves into this off season in better shape that it has in a long, long time. The complete experience of preparing and playing in the New Mexico Bowl should go a long way toward returning Cougar football to relevance in the Pac-12.
Sep 28, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney (25) carries the ball with Washington State Cougars linebacker Darryl Monroe (13) and Washington State Cougars linebacker Tana Pritchard (33) trying to tackle during the 1st half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
First, looking at the performance of conference teams in bowl games reveals, well, a few nuggets.
Perhaps the most notable note** comes from Stanford’s surprising loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. Coach David Shaw takes pride in playing a brand of football which is extremely conservative compared to the rest of the PAC. Shaw also has a record of winning big games with a fundamentally sound game plan fine tuned to capitalize on the strengths of his roster rather than focus on an opponent’s weaknesses. Coach Mark Dantonio reversed Shaw’s emphasis, minimizing the Cardinal running game and forcing Kevin Hogan to move the ball through the air. It worked to perfection for the Spartans who head into their off season buoyed with confidence by winning a BCS game.
Dec 21, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian (left) and athletic director Pat Haden at the Las Vegas Bowl against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Sam Boyd Stadium. USC defeated Fresno State 45-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
After watching USC take apart a very good Fresno State ball club in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Trojans have a roster going into spring ball which should be the envy of virtually every head coach in the nation. Make no mistake, USC has the horses to race through their 2014 schedule. The only question about the program is one which has haunted Trojan Nation since Pete Carroll left town. Do they have a coach who knows how to run a national championship caliber operation? Lane Kiffin failed to pass such a test. It remains to be seen what Steve Sarkisian will do…especially in light of what the Trojans did to Fresno State without a head coach.
The Arizona schools left this writer shaking his head.
Coach Todd Graham appeared to have led his team as far as they were going to get with his style. “Coaching up” players (a euphemism for yelling) coming off the field after making a mistake wears thin when done in front of a national audience. Sure, Graham looks the part of a tough guy in the process of ranting and waving his assortment of wristbands, but the results on the field of play suggest handling his players with more dignified actions should be employed. Specifically, the Sun Devils had the speed and size to dominate Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Instead, first year coach Kliff Kingsbury led his Red Raiders to an easy victory with a team which over-achieved in a big game.
Nov 16, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats running back KaDeem Carey (25) runs the ball as he is pursued by Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao (97) during the second quarter at Arizona Stadium. The Cougars beat the Wildcats 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
The style of Wildcat coach Rich Rodriguez is less polished than his counterpart in Tempe. Arizona knew that when they hired him. The folks in Ann Arbor grew tired of Rodriguez quicker than a snow cone disappears in the desert surrounding Tucson. Give credit where it’s due though. Rodriguez had the ‘Cats well prepared for Boston College leading to a dominating performance in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl.
Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Oregon State didn’t look good in their bowl games. They looked great. Of those four ball clubs, UCLA heads into the off season with the brightest future in terms of coaching staffs and rosters.
And therein lies the task for Mike Leach and his staff.
For the Cougs to make it to the next level in the Pac-12, they will have to outperform USC, Stanford, UCLA, Oregon, Washington, Arizona or continue to languish in the lower echelon of the conference.
Heading into spring ball, Washington State looks to have the most prolific passing attack of any Pac-12 school. By losing Brandin Cooks to the NFL, the conference leading passing game of Oregon State took a huge hit. The fact Leach and his CougAir offense only expect to run the football about 25% of the time, Connor Halliday will be poised to shatter WSU passing records and dominate statistically.
October 27, 2012; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes (6) is tackled by Washington State Cougars linebacker Darryl Monroe (13) during the third quarter at Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal defeated the Cougars 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
If the Cougs are going to continue moving forward, they must play better defense. And they will have to do that without the leadership of Deone Bucannon and experience of Damante Horton in their secondary. Leach will also have to fill the massive shoes of nose tackle Ioane Gauta. Then again, that’s what spring ball is all about…passing the torch to younger players to carry forward.
And what will have the greatest impact on the Washington State Cougar football program in 2014? That’s an easy question to answer. The Pac-12 performance this past bowl season.
Oct 31, 2013; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars coach Mike Leach reacts during the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
By going 6-3 while participating in 26% of the bowl games played, young men interested in playing college football at the highest level will look to compete in the Pac-12. For Leach and his staff aggressively recruiting prospects who are a great fit for Washington State, heads were turned based on what happened during games televised nationally. High school players dream of making a catch or tackle that turns up on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day. The evolution of the PAC-12 Network assures both regional and national exposure for Washington State football, as well as the other eleven conference teams. And heck, two of the three losses came down to the final possession of the game.
When Mike Leach and his staff are allowed to heat up recruiting once again on January 15th, they will have the results of this bowl season added to their arsenal of reasons why a prospect should join the Washington State football program.
The Cougs may not have won the battle waged in Albuquerque, but with Mike Leach at the helm as captain, Washington State looks poised for success in the war that will be the 2014 season.
** Wanted to begin the year with a tip of my hat to our friends at CougFan.com who have fearlessly covered WSU athletics for more than 15 years