NCAA Football: Rutgers at Washington State

Rise and Grind – One last look edition


Happy Thursday Cougs, as we here at WSU Football Blog wish all the best to you and yours.

So like many of you, I have been trying to really figure out the week one loss vs. Rutgers and what it really means as we roll forward in 2014.  And when I say figure it out, what I mean is that I’m trying to decide what to really “glean” from what we saw and, further, if there’s much value to reacting positively OR negatively from week one?  I watched the replay of the game after watching it in person last week, and so here’s a few thoughts anyway…

1) Defense – I am just as disappointed as you are in the overall performance of the D.  Rutgers ran at will vs. the Cougar D, totaling 215 yards on the ground.  Paul James had 173 yards at 6 yards per carry, as he was strong and also patient with how he hit the holes and how good he was at cutting back vs. the overpursuit of the Coug run defense.  And their experienced offensive line generally pushed the Cougs around all night by sustaining blocks up front and getting to the linebackers on a consistent basis.

But it was more than just the run game.  Gary Nova had a pretty decent performance at 281 yards on 10.4 yards per attempt, which is really pretty good overall (Halliday was at 9.5 ypa for what it’s worth).  Granted he had 78 of those 281 yards on one play(!), but still that’s a pretty good game from the QB.  Rutgers wasn’t great on 3rd down, just 6-for-14 in what was somewhat of a surprise (actually it felt like they were something like 12-for-14!).  But Nova’s 78-yard TD pass on the first play of the game just seemed to change everything that we may have felt about coming in to this one.

It was as if that single play took a lot of the aggressiveness and “edge” out of a lot of new faces in the secondary, meaning that if Rutgers could handle the Coug D with their strength with their offensive line and power run game up front?  We were in for a tough night if the secondary couldn’t cheat down closer to the line of scrimmage and/or they couldn’t call the different blitzes in fear of getting beat over the top!  Rutgers didn’t win the game on one single play, I mean we actually came back and led this game with 4 minutes to go.  But it was as if everything on D kind of went out the window on one play?

There was a really good article from former Coug assistant and former Montana head coach Robin Pflugrad on Cougfan yesterday.  It’s written from a coaches POV, and I would highly encourage checking it out.  It’s got some really good stuff on what happened vs. Rutgers, and further, what we might expect to see tomorrow night vs. the hated Wolfpack of Nevada.   Something that stood out though was that Pflugrad touched on how Ralph Friedgen came out of retirement to call plays in this game, and you have to wonder if that threw off the defensive in-game adjustments.  As we all know, coaches watch tape for hours on end and prepare not only for the different plays and such, but also a big part of it is preparing for the different personnel and formations that they expect to see from the opponent.  There was one story in the aftermath, and I’m sorry that I can’t find it at the moment, but it said the first play of the game on that long TD, Rutgers came out in a different formation and with different personnel than the staff expected.  They tried to alert Tracy Clark from the sideline that on a formation like that, that Rutgers likes to go deep, but the message wasn’t quite received and we all saw the result.

I also believe we won’t see another offensive system like that the rest of the year, outside of Stanford anyway.  I mean you look at the schedule and who even remotely looks like Rutgers? Their offensive line looked like an NFL line, including a great skill of holding-but-not-getting-caught (seriously, it looked like they held every play but they are awfully good at not getting nailed on it!  I know refs could call holding on every play in college and the NFL, but still, that was a really good line.).  They played those heavy sets with a tight end and fullback, and they ran the ball in a style that we just won’t see much of in 2014.  Look across the schedule and you tell me who looks like Rutgers aside from Stanford??

The other thing to think about is that this may have just been a product of what we saw a lot of in college football last Saturday, and that’s quite simply that defenses aren’t really in full blown “tackle” mode yet?  There was a story from OSU coach Mike Riley a few years back that wrote about trying to understand why the Beavers got off to some slow starts before they would “circle the wagons”.  One of the things Riley mentioned is that because depth was always an issue at a program like OSU, that they wouldn’t hit as much as some other deeper programs across the then-Pac-10 in fall camp.  He didn’t want to wear his depth out too soon, and he even said in the article that he approached the beginning of the season in a similar way that he did in the NFL, where it’s almost like preseason in how they prepared.  It’s like they used the beginning of season to really get into gear on defense and in-game tackling was the best way to get ready for the grind of the conference.  Sure enough, the Beavs would typically start slow and maybe even kick a game here and there early in the year, only to rally and finish pretty well all things considered.

I know things are different now and you really can’t afford to take a regular season game and approach it like the preseason.  The margin for error is too slim when trying to get to a bowl game for example, and you can’t afford to blow a game you were favored to win.  But one of the things we heard and saw from college football analysts after week one was that tackling just wasn’t good across the country.  I really wonder if early season performances on defense just aren’t quite there yet based on the new NCAA rules limiting contact per week?  But in the end, I think you factor in playing a Rutgers team that had the D on their heels all game, facing an opponent that is very different outside of Stanford than we will see all season, AND the limited contact and tackling we’ve experienced in fall camp?  Add all those things up, and maybe, just maybe, what we just saw last Thursday was the WORST that we will see from the D?  Just food for thought I guess, but let’s just say I am expecting a much better performance tomorrow night!

2) Offense – Again like many of you, it is hard to be anything but overly impressed by the play of Connor Halliday.  40-for-56, 532 yards and 5 TD’s with 1 INT is a great night at the office for this team.  He made great decisions all night, and hit on a variety of passes from the short, intermediate and the deep throws as well.  He showed great arm strength on the deep outs and threw a lot of balls right on time, and excellent touch on the deeper routes.  While the Halliday haters are out there, after a performance like that they were awfully quiet.  There seems little doubt he is in for a big season.

However, like many of you I would really like to see some sort of run game.  Rutgers had a big, strong front 7 that was tough, but everyone knew their secondary with their inexperience and zone coverage was a perfect match for the Coug passing game to exploit.  I thought Halliday and the receivers beat my own expectations anyway, as I thought they would play well but not THAT well.  But while it was a pleasant surprise to see the O carve up a defense like that through the air, I still want to see a bit more on the ground.

Yes, we all know that some of those really short passes are more or less running plays in this offense.  The throws are extremely high percentage and they are good for a short gain here and there.  But I am talking about those moments where you really want to hand it off, gain a few yards, and eat some clock.  We saw the issues they had in the bowl game last year in trying to close out an opponent, and they looked like a fish out of water.  But I am thinking back to the first-and-goal at the 2 yard line in the first half after a Gary Nova interception, and they could only come away with 3 points on that drive.

To recap the situation – Nova threw a ball where his receiver hadn’t yet turned his head to look for it, and Tana Pritchard easily nabbed it and returned it to the 2-yard line.  But on the first play on 1st and goal from the 2, we see the offense spread out and try a lob in the corner to Isiah Myers.  The ball was kind of underthrown and floated, one of the few mistakes Halliday made on the night, and Myers couldn’t quite bring it in.  2nd and goal from the 2, we’re still in a typical spread out set, and Halliday gets sacked.  Suddenly it’s 3rd and goal from the 7, and Halliday checks down to River Cracraft for a 4-yard gain underneath the coverage.  We kick the field goal for the first points of the season, so it wasn’t all for naught.  But think about it for a second – 1st and goal from the 2 and you try 3 passes, settling for a field goal?  I think we all know that a TD there could have been the difference in the game, all things considered.  I don’t know how they fix it though, I mean it’s hard to be something you are not.  It’s easy to forget about him and he had a big fumble in the bowl game loss, but early in 2013 we had a tough back in Jeremiah Laufasa, and he had 7 TD runs last year, including 2 in the opener at Auburn.  It isn’t hard to picture him slamming it up in there from 2 yards out, is it?  And right now this is a great passing team that struggles in short yardage situations or late game clock-eating scenarios and I just don’t know how we’re going to fix it.

Moving on, a good recap from practice from Jacob Thorpe.  I guess the biggest “news” is that River Cracraft didn’t practice again, but they are expecting him to play tomorrow?  Hmm.  So he didn’t practice Monday, did very little on Tuesday and then sat out again Wednesday.  I know they are coy about injuries and such, but here’s hoping we’re all good on Cracraft tomorrow.

That’s about it.  Enjoy your Thursday, and of course, GO COUGS!