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1. That was not what we were hoping for
We had grand visions. Mike Leach was back! There's more fun in college football again! Let's set up a Leach vs. Holgorsen series at Football Study Hall! Leach's return to college football was a joyous time for the blogger community.
At least, it was until the games actually began.
Leach's first fall in Pullman was the classic example of a Year Zero, where the clock on a given coach's tenure doesn't actually begin until the second year, once he's actually been able to sculpt the roster and figure out what he has. Leach inherited a team that had certainly passed a lot under his predecessor, Paul Wulff, but didn't pass the way Leach likes to pass, and didn't have anything resembling the tools Leach needed. He played a ton of newcomers, stuck to his style of ball despite a general lack of progress, and limped to a 3-9 finish, the first losing season of his head coaching career. Leach was all but guaranteed to win seven or eight games per year at Texas Tech, but he inherited a much, much healthier core of talent from Spike Dykes than he did from Wulff, even if Dykes' style was quite different.
Leach's steady track record of success wooed me (and many others) into thinking he could pretty quickly coax improvement and a six-win team out of last year's mismatched parts. He could not. His team was listless in a season opener against BYU, barely eased past Eastern Washington and UNLV, unforgivably blew a big, late lead against Colorado and made the mistake of playing its best in-conference games against teams it had no chance of beating (Oregon, Stanford).
The Cougars beat Washington in the season finale to build some goodwill, however, and head into 2013 with infinitely more experience than it had a year ago. They still have infinite question marks, too, of course, but that's de rigeur for a team that fell as far as Wazzu did in 2008-09. It is a long road back to competitive football, and there are no shortcuts.
2. Improve on D, regress on O
That's what we all expected, right? That Leach, the Air Raid maestro, would come aboard and engineer immediate defensive improvement (from 94th to 76th in Def. F/+) while the offense fell apart (from 62nd to 109th in Off. F/+), right?
New defensive coordinator Mike Breske moved from Montana to Pullman and installed what was basically a flexible 3-4, with a BUCK linebacker occasionally lining up with his hand on the ground. The result was a more aggressive defense that still had plenty of flaws but improved up front and did an infinitely better job of stopping drives before the end zone. Wazzu's per-play stats improved a little; its per-drive stats improved a lot. It didn't really help the win-loss record because of the offensive stagnation, but if we work under the assumption that Leach is going to figure things out on offense (still a fair assumption given his track record), then seeing the defense improve so much, so quickly is incredibly encouraging.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 98|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||at BYU||6-30||L||17.2 - 32.3||L|
|8-Sep||Eastern Washington||24-20||W||23.5 - 29.8||L|
|14-Sep||at UNLV||35-27||W||32.3 - 32.7||L|
|22-Sep||Colorado||34-35||L||15.9 - 48.2||L|
|29-Sep||Oregon||26-51||L||25.7 - 25.3||W|
|6-Oct||at Oregon State||6-19||L||20.1 - 21.3||L|
|13-Oct||California||17-31||L||21.4 - 39.6||L|
|27-Oct||at Stanford||17-24||L||34.4 - 24.5||W|
|3-Nov||at Utah||6-49||L||15.5 - 45.8||L|
|10-Nov||UCLA||36-44||L||32.9 - 26.5||W|
|17-Nov||at Arizona State||7-46||L||13.8 - 30.2||L|
|23-Nov||Washington||31-28||W||27.8 - 21.8||W|
|Points Per Game||20.4||108||33.7||101|
|Adj. Points Per Game||23.4||104||31.5||93|
3. One step back, one and a half steps forward
When you're in a Year Zero situation, you want to at least see improvement from the beginning of the season to the end. Technically that was the case, though every sign of progress was met by a step backwards.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Opponent 32.7, Wazzu 22.3 (minus-10.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Opponent 29.8, Wazzu 24.9 (minus-4.9)
After a mostly awful first four games, Wazzu actually played quite well in losses to Oregon and Oregon State, then lost by 14 points at home to a pretty bad Cal team. The Cougars played quite well against Stanford, then got obliterated by Utah. They rallied to finish close to UCLA, then got drubbed by Arizona State. The late-season lows were not the entire story, but the forward steps weren't either.
|Q1 Rk||97||1st Down Rk||92|
|Q2 Rk||86||2nd Down Rk||104|
|Q3 Rk||105||3rd Down Rk||42|
Brett Bartolone. Otto Greule, Getty.
In discussing Mike Leach's style with SB Nation's Spencer Hall at one point, I was struck by his use of the word "orthodox," as in Leach is just as orthodox toward the pass as a lot of old-school coaches are toward the run. For years at Texas Tech, Leach's opponents would spread out and dare him to run the ball, and he spent most of his time refusing to do so.
Of course, he also spent most of his time with an offense that moved the ball at will, so maybe the joke's on us. Regardless, opponents once again formed an umbrella against Washington State, frequently rushing no more than two or three pass rushers and leaving open the middle of the field. And Washington State was unable to do much about it.
There's a whole myth about balance, and it's really stupid. The notion that you hand it to one guy half the time, and then you throw it to two other guys the other half of the time, and maybe you connect, maybe you don't, there's nothing balanced about it. There's two skill positions left out, ya know? Balance is, whether you run it or throw it, getting contributions from all the skill positions.
Either because of play-calling, decision-making, or a simple lack of weapons, Washington State did not have anything resembling balance in 2012. But it may not have been because the running backs weren't touching the ball enough.
If we define touches as either carries or targets (instead of simply receptions), here's how Wazzu's ball distribution took shape last fall (taking into account that players can change positions, even in a given game):
- RB (WR-F): 240 touches, 872 yards (3.6 per touch)
- WR-X: 179 touches, 1,571 yards (8.8)
- WR-Z: 142 touches, 975 yards (6.9)
- WR-H: 104 touches, 501 yards (4.8)
- WR-Y: 83 touches, 625 yards (7.5)
In foregoing the run, Leach certainly lived up/down to the reputation he had already formed. But he also played to the team's strengths -- the offensive line couldn't open up running holes to save its life. The running backs were, to put it kindly, questionable. And including pass targets, running backs were still touching the ball more than any other position in the Leach offense, and their production was incredibly weak. Even throwing short to slot guys like Brett Bartolone and the other H receivers produced more than pretending to be competent in the run game.
Because of his hires, perhaps, we weren't completely sure what to expect from the 2012 Wazzu offense. Leach brought aboard Jim Mastro, former Nevada and UCLA assistant and "Pistol [formation] guy." It was fun getting visions of Leach incorporating aspects of the Pistol like former Leach assistant Dana Holgorson has done at West Virginia. Alas, he did not last fall; we'll soon see how much of that is because the personnel just wasn't there to try it, and how much was New Leach being Old Leach.
The personnel isn't going to look much different in 2013. Three of four running backs return, as do six of last year's seven leading receivers. "Leading" rusher (in quotes because he gained just 280 yards) Carl Winston is gone, as is tortured receiver Marquess Wilson, but the faces are mostly the same. The main difference is just that last year's freshmen and sophomores are sophomores and juniors. Brett Bartolone and Gabe Marks, the leaders of the receiving corps, were both freshmen in 2012, and Dominique Williams, then a redshirt freshman, erupted late in the season (28 catches for 438 yards in the last five games) after Wilson quit the team. Experience and a healthier dose of Williams could improve this unit, but new blood probably will not.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Connor Halliday||6'4, 183||Jr.||*** (5.6)||151||290||1,874||52.1%||15||13||22||7.1%||5.5|
|Austin Apodaca||6'3, 191||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Tyler Bruggman||6'1, 190||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Luke Falk||6'4, 210||Fr.||** (5.3)|
5. No place for Heroball
In a brief 2011 audition, quarterback Connor Halliday showed moxie, balls, and toughness. He engineered a fantastic comeback against Arizona State, then played through a lacerated liver for most of the Utah game. He showed no fear of throwing passes into tight windows or looking downfield. All of these things made me quickly fall for him and get starry eyes about him playing in a Mike Leach offense, and all of these things made him a particularly questionable quarterback in a Mike Leach offense.
Leach quarterbacks are robots. Read defense, find what defense is giving you, throw ball. Don't try to fit the ball into a tight window 20 yards downfield. Don't try to throw a touchdown pass on every play. Matriculate the ball down the field with short passing if that's what the defense is letting you do.
Halliday struggled with this, managing an interception rate twice that of since-departed senior Jeff Tuel, and for every step forward (26-for-43 for 330 yards, five touchdowns and a pick versus UCLA), there was a total dud of a performance from (9-for-20 for 81 yards and three picks versus Oregon State). If Halliday's decision-making matures a bit, lord knows he has tools to succeed. He has a big arm he doesn't mind showing off, and though he is lanky, he's got the requisite size. But if he doesn't give Leach what he's supposed to, then we might see either a redshirt freshman or true freshman with a shot at the job.
Connor Halliday, David Gilbertson, and Jeff Tuel. Stephen Dunn, Getty.
|Teondray Caldwell||RB||5'8, 197||So.||*** (5.5)||56||269||4.8||4.1||0||-2.4|
|Leon Brooks||RB||5'7, 172||Sr.||NR||12||78||6.5||9.9||1||+1.4|
|Marcus Mason||RB||5'9, 187||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||15||1.3||N/A||0||-4.5|
|Connor Halliday||QB||6'4, 183||Jr.||*** (5.6)||5||-3||-0.6||N/A||0||-3.2|
|Gerard Wicks||RB||5'11, 195||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Brett Bartolone||WR-H||5'10, 187||So.||** (5.4)||89||54||435||60.7%||4.9||15.0%||73.0%||5.1||49.4|
|Gabe Marks||WR-Z||6'0, 176||So.||**** (5.9)||71||49||560||69.0%||7.9||12.0%||56.3%||8.0||63.5|
|Isiah Myers||WR-Z||6'0, 184||Jr.||** (5.3)||70||41||418||58.6%||6.0||11.8%||58.6%||6.0||47.4|
|Dominique Williams||WR-X||6'2, 192||So.||** (5.4)||55||34||546||61.8%||9.9||9.3%||54.5%||9.8||61.9|
|Bobby Ratliff||WR-Y||6'2, 192||Jr.||*** (5.6)||54||30||399||55.6%||7.4||9.1%||53.7%||7.6||45.3|
|Kristoff Williams||WR-X||6'2, 216||Jr.||** (5.4)||36||23||212||63.9%||5.9||6.1%||55.6%||6.1||24.1|
|Teondray Caldwell||RB||5'8, 197||So.||*** (5.5)||21||14||36||66.7%||1.7||3.5%||52.4%||1.7||4.1|
|Marcus Mason||RB||5'9, 187||Sr.||** (5.4)||18||14||88||77.8%||4.9||3.0%||83.3%||4.2||10.0|
|Rickey Galvin||WR-H||5'8, 174||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||9||68||69.2%||5.2||2.2%||53.8%||4.8||7.7|
|Leon Brooks||RB||5'7, 172||Sr.||NR||10||7||22||70.0%||2.2||1.7%||80.0%||2.5||2.5|
|Vincent Mayle||WR||6'3, 220||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Robert Lewis||WR-Y||5'9, 152||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|John Fullington||LG||6'5, 297||Sr.||*** (5.6)||30 career starts|
|Wade Jacobson||RT||25 career starts|
|Matt Goetz||RG||6'4, 259||Sr.||** (5.2)||14 career starts|
|Jake Rodgers||RT||13 career starts|
|Elliot Bosch||C||6'4, 274||Sr.||NR||12 career starts|
|Dan Spitz||RG||9 career starts|
|Gunnar Eklund||LT||6'7, 305||So.||NR||7 career starts|
|Taylor Meighen||C||1 career start|
|Rico Forbes||RT||6'6, 304||Sr.||*** (5.5)|
|Zach Brevick||C||6'5, 275||Sr.||NR|
|Joe Dahl||LG||6'4, 289||So.||NR|
|Denzell Dotson||LG||6'2, 321||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Eduardo Middleton||LT||6'5, 318||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Sam Flor||C||6'4, 306||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Jacob Seydel||RT||6'6, 283||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Devonte McClain||OL||6'5, 275||Jr.||NR|
6. Wanted: Line talent, any line talent
Leach and longtime Leach assistant Clay McGuire did a lot of shuffling on last year's line but never found the right mix. Wazzu finished 124th -- dead last in FBS -- in run blocking, showing reasonably well in power situations but creating almost no opportunities for backs and frequently allowing defenders into the backfield for negative plays. Meanwhile, Wazzu's Adj. Sack Rate, long a strength at Tech (thanks in part to the wide splits that require defenders to run a long way to the quarterback, and in part to the quick-passing nature of the offense), was pretty awful, too.
In 2013, four of eight linemen with starting experience return (63 career starts), but two were non-entities in the recruiting process, as were two more members of the two-deep. There are some three-star recruits in the mix, but this is a case where recruiting rankings and production matched up. The Cougars need drastic improvement in both categories.
|Q1 Rk||76||1st Down Rk||82|
|Q2 Rk||82||2nd Down Rk||85|
|Q3 Rk||87||3rd Down Rk||116|
7. Not enough tricks
After an early blitz (17 plays, 164 yards, three touchdowns), Washington State held Oregon to 305 yards in 61 plays (5.0 per play) over the game's final 45 minutes or so. Stanford gained just 256 yards (4.9 per play) against the Cougars, UCLA gained 334 (5.6), and Oregon State gained 370 (4.5). These are four pretty good offenses, all playing below their season averages against WSU. Plus, Washington gained only 269 yards (4.0) in the season finale.
But there just weren't enough tricks up Mike Breske's sleeve for the other games. Eastern Washington and UNLV averaged 5.6 yards per play, Colorado (!) averaged 6.6, and California (!) averaged 6.9.
Wazzu game-planned pretty well and played alright on standard downs (especially against the run), but in the end, breakdowns on passing downs were too much to overcome. This was a young, interesting defense that was probably too young to be too interesting. The leading defensive lineman and linebacker were freshmen, and a relatively experienced (comparatively speaking) secondary wasn't talented enough, particularly at cornerback.
8. Improvement forthcoming
But to the extent that experience was an issue, it won't be in 2013 -- the top four linemen, seven of eight linebackers, and six of seven defensive backs all return. The tackles and linebackers are active, and safety Deonne Bucannon was a second-team all-conference performer.
I'm not sure of the upside here, but I think marginal improvement over last year is within reach. In fact, I would say that there is probably more reason to be optimistic about the defense than the offense in 2013, just as there was in 2012.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Xavier Cooper||DT||6'4, 298||So.||NR||11||26.0||3.6%||8.5||3||0||0||1||0|
|Ioane Gauta||NT||6'3, 286||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||23.5||3.2%||8.5||3||1||2||0||1|
|Matthew Bock||DE||6'2, 266||Jr.||NR||12||17.0||2.3%||3.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Kalafitoni Pole||DT||6'1, 300||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||15.5||2.1%||5.5||1.5||1||1||0||0|
|Destiny Vaeao||DE||6'4, 293||So.||*** (5.6)||7||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Austin Brown||DT||6'2, 267||RSFr.||NR|
|Robert Barber||NT||6'3, 300||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Lyman Faoliu||DE||6'3, 266||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Paulo Lepua||DT||6'3, 255||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Darryl Monroe||MIKE||6'1, 235||So.||*** (5.6)||12||59.5||8.1%||8.5||3||0||2||2||1|
|Cyrus Coen||SAM||6'0, 213||Jr.||NR||12||50.0||6.8%||12||3||3||4||0||1|
|Justin Sagote||WILL||6'0, 223||Sr.||NR||12||50.0||6.8%||2.5||1.5||0||1||1||1|
|Jared Byers||MIKE||6'0, 219||Sr.||NR||12||29.5||4.0%||1||0||0||0||1||1|
|Eric Oertel||SAM||6'1, 200||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||27.0||3.7%||6||2||0||0||0||0|
|Chester Su'a||WILL||6'1, 224||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||25.5||3.5%||3.5||1||0||2||1||0|
|Logan Mayes||BUCK||6'3, 241||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||20.5||2.8%||3.5||2.5||0||0||1||0|
|Tana Pritchard||WILL||6'3, 217||So.||** (5.4)||10||6.5||0.9%||1||0||0||1||1||0|
|Kache Palacio||BUCK||6'2, 217||So.||*** (5.6)||12||5.5||0.8%||0.5||0.5||0||0||2||0|
|Jeremiah Allison||MIKE||6'2, 218||So.||*** (5.7)||11||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ivan McLennan||BUCK||6'4, 238||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
9. Pressure from all angles
It's easy to figure out Mike Breske's goal here: attack from everywhere. Tackles had 22.5 tackles for loss, SAM linebackers had 18, BUCK ends/linebackers had 17, MIKE linebackers had 9.5, WILLs had 7.0, safeties had 4.5, and ends had 3.5. The corner position played soft and uncertain for the most part, but like Art Briles, Leach seems to want to take a "big plays, one way or the other" approach on defense.
Ioane Gauta. James Snook, US Presswire.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Deone Bucannon||FS||6'1, 198||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||85.5||11.7%||3||1||4||4||1||0|
|Casey Locker||SS||5'11, 195||Sr.||** (5.4)||10||50.5||6.9%||1.5||0||1||0||0||1|
|Anthony Carpenter||CB||6'0, 196||Sr.||*** (5.6)||10||41.0||5.6%||2.5||0||1||1||0||0|
|Damante Horton||CB||5'10, 178||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||23.0||3.1%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Taylor Taliulu||S||5'11, 202||So.||** (5.4)||10||15.5||2.1%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Nolan Washington||CB||5'11, 190||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||11.5||1.6%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Tracy Clark||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||** (5.4)||2||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Feddie Davey||S||5'10, 193||So.||** (5.4)||8||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Alex Jackson||CB||5'10, 168||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|David Bucannon||S||6'0, 187||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Rahmel Dockery||CB||5'10, 171||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Paris Taylor||DB||6'3, 220||Jr.||NR|
|Daquawn Brown||DB||5'11, 185||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Michael Bowlin||6'4, 214||Sr.||58||41.9||4||12||8||34.5%|
|Wes Concepcion||6'0, 174||Jr.||2||41.0||0||0||0||0.0%|
|Michael Bowlin||6'4, 214||Sr.||47||63||18||38.3%|
|Andrew Furney||5'10, 215||Sr.||1||64||0||0.0%|
|Andrew Furney||5'10, 215||Sr.||25-26||8-10||80.0%||6-10||60.0%|
|Teondray Caldwell||KR||5'8, 197||So.||27||25.0||0|
|Kristoff Williams||KR||6'2, 216||RSJr.||5||21.4||0|
|Leon Brooks||PR||5'7, 172||Sr.||7||10.6||0|
|Brett Bartolone||PR||5'10, 187||So.||6||2.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||106|
|Field Goal Pct||68|
|Kick Returns Avg||59|
|Punt Returns Avg||84|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||121|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||52|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / -8.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||16 (7, 9)|
10. Now what?
Mike Leach's history suggests it won't take him long to figure out how to move the ball on offense, but will that happen in 2013, with uncertainty at quarterback and the bad kind of certainty on the offensive line?
And while the defensive changes took hold and experience is rampant in 2013, did Wazzu improve a little too much on that side of the ball last year (which might mean that regression toward the mean is a possibility)?
And even if both units improve, how many wins are possible on a schedule that features only two opponents projected worse than 68th and six opponents projected 35th or better?
The Pac-12 is loaded with potentially decent-to-good teams in 2013; after stagnation in Year Zero, can Leach and the Cougars not only make up ground, but make up that much ground?
It's really fun having Mike Leach back in the college football universe. And with exciting players like Connor Halliday, Dominique Williams, Deone Bucannon, linebacker Cyrus Coen, tackle Xavier Cooper, etc., it's safe to say that Washington State games will probably be more fun in 2013 than they were last year. But will they be more successful for the Cougars? We might have to wait one more year on that one.