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Washington State Cougars football: Five things we learned

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day…or a Season

With Mike Leach as the head coach of the Washington State Cougars, the general consensus for the starving Cougar fan base was a bowl game.

Well, the team fell short, to say the least.

The Cougars finished their season at 3-9. The wins were few and far between, but they did end the year on a high note with an Apple Cup victory over the bowl-bound Huskies.

Now that the glory has finally died down from that final victory, we can recap on the disappointing season that was.

Here are 5 things we learned from the Cougar football season.

Mike Leach

Mike Leach’s system might have been more complicated than some anticipated.

They Were Not Ready

After going 4-8—including a few defeats by a slim margin—under Paul Wulff, there was a belief that the team had a slew of talented players. Considering they had their backup, Marshall Lobbestael, as the starter for majority of the season, their record didn’t quite reflect their level of play.

With these players under a proven successful coach, the optimism was at an all-time high. But we quickly learned that these “talented” players were not ready for the ol’ pirate.

After the slow start, complaints arose about the team’s performance and the coach’s demeanor in the post-game conferences. Finally, the biggest blow to the team occurred when star wide out Marquess Wilson quit the team.

Hours before the home game vs. UCLA, Wilson released a statement criticizing Leach’s coaching tactics and even claimed he was abused. This blew up in the nation-wide media, and the school was eventually put under investigation.

At the season’s end, the investigation found nothing and Wilson even recanted his statements.

The dismissal of Wilson was a turning point for the team, in which the group rallied behind Jeff Tuel and began to play with heart. They nearly rallied back against UCLA that night, and they never gave up against the Huskies, leading them to victory.

The team had never experienced the type of coaching that Leach brought to the table. This transition was a bumpy ride, but it also weeded out the weak-minded individuals that refused to buy into his system.

The Offense was More Complicated than Expected

The slow start and constant hiccups were not only results from Leach’s coaching style, but also his system.

The “air-raid” offense Leach is commonly known for was expected to be complicated. Luckily, the team had two capable quarterbacks in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday to run it, along with an outstanding receiving corp led by Wilson. They also had an entire spring and summer to get the offense down.

However, the first half of the season consisted of timing miscues and a general lack of execution.

It took roughly three-quarters of the year, but eventually Tuel won the starting job and began to understand the offense. There were times when the system looked like a Texas Tech product. With quick, three-step drops and passes to short routes in space working like clockwork.

It was a thing of beauty, but was too rare of an occurrence.

This bodes trouble, considering Tuel graduated and Connor Halliday could not seem to grasp the scheme. With the talented Tyler Bruggman coming in, the future of Halliday is in question. Either way, the player that earns the starting job must do a better job of grasping the offense early for this team to be successful.

Leach Favors his Followers

One noticeable trait when Leach first arrived was his lack of consideration for the leaders from the year before. He didn’t hesitate to sit Wilson when he would lax of in practice, and he swapped Tuel and Halliday back and forth until he found a hint of consistency.

Because of this mind set, Dominique Williams, Brett Bartolone, and Isiah Myers all received more playing time than expected—and flourished with the opportunity.

Gabe Marks had the most promise coming into the season, but his ability was over-shadowed by the production of his teammates.

Considering Bruggman is a Leach-recruit, you can bet he has the tools Leach looks for in a quarterback.

It will be interesting to see if Bruggman turns out to be the player Leach expects, and if he can produce like the other players have—when given the chance.

Mike Breske the Real Deal?

Mike Breske was the defensive coordinator hired under coach Leach. Breske was kind of an afterthought to the media, considering the high profile of Leach and his reliance on offense.

He was brought in as a risk-taking defensive coordinator who had an array of complex blitz packages and a repertoire of a solid secondary.

When you look over the past season, the scores do not insinuate a solid defensive effort. Giving up 34.9 points per game is not a number that’s gentle on the eyes. Yet—especially in college football—this stat is essentially bogus.

Apple Cup victory.

The future of the WSU Cougars is bright.

When you have a defensive coordinator who thrives off of turnovers and defensive intensity, it is difficult to contain an opposing offense when you cannot stay off of the field. The defense can only be successful if the offense is producing long, effective drives. This was shown in the games against Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.

In the Oregon and Stanford meetings, the offense started out strong and remained on the field. This gave the defense the opportunity for rest, and thus they became more efficient on the field.

Against UCLA and Washington, the offense came out sluggish and the defense struggled because of this. Then the offense began to get into its stride, and the defense picked up its intensity.

If the offense can be successful, the term “perfect fit” is a credible definition of Breske and Leach’s relationship.

The Future is Bright

This was the theme going into the season last year, so it may not give the fans much of a morale boost. But this off-season will be a much larger step for the team, and much more effective.

Last season was abysmal because Leach did not have the team he needed. He had a group of talented players who were coddled early in their careers, didn’t know the system and lacked mental toughness.

Now, Leach has weeded out the players with those mind sets and brought in a recruiting class full of talent—a class that has an understanding of what it’s like under a Leach-coached system.

The quarterback situation must be figured out sooner rather than later in order for the team to be successful early. But with such a young team, Leach already has his guys under the same idea and can continue to mold them into the team he wants them to be.

The future is bright for these young Cougars.

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About Jordin Ereth

Reigning from the Palouse, an avid Cougar and Seahawks fan who still sheds a tear at the name drop of our lost Sonics. A recent graduate from Washington State University with a degree in Broadcasting Productions and Sports Media. Go Cougs! Connect w/ Jordin today!
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  • John Doe the Coug Fan

    Austin Apodaca, a player that was committed to Paul Wulff before being fired, was actually recruited by Mike Leach after he was hired. Apodaca is the quintessential Leach QB. Strong, accurate arm that is a leader on the field. He’s not the most mobile and he’s not going to ‘wow’ anyone on tape, but Leach liked him enough to keep his scholarship offer and bring him on board when, at the same time, he was pulling a lot of offers of previously committed Wulff players.

    Tyler Bruggman will get the hype, and rightfully so, but his four-stars only go so far. He won’t be ready to come in and play right away. It’s a two-horse race come next fall for the starting QB spot, led first and foremost by Halliday, and being challenged by Apodaca. Especially when witnessing the struggles of two QBs that were not familiar to the system, Bruggman will need to wait his fair share of time to see the field — and he knew that when he committed.

    I’d also argue that, of all the receivers you mentioned, Brett Bartolone was the MVP of this offense. He didn’t finish with mind-blowing statistics by any margin, but managed to haul in 53 receptions for 435 yards and four touchdowns in a back-up role the majority of the season. He broke onto the scene against Oregon with nine catches for 87 yards and was able to find the pay dirt and was Mr. Consistency, hauling in at least three catches in 11 of 12 games this year. Bartolone is going to be a guy that is going to be an instant leader on this offense, and by the end of the year, you could already see his leadership once the aforementioned Wilson had already departed the team.

    Overall, I agree with a lot of what you had to say. Good article.

  • Hawker1

    From a former TTech fan late getting to the conversation….Y’all should realize that, except for Graham Harrell, who was an exceptional talent as well as being a coach’s son, most all Leach’s starting QBs were 3-5 year players. The system is beautiful but it’s just as hard to learn as it is to defend against. Have a little patience and you will be amazed at the success.

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