With Dana Holgorsen's West Virginia squad enjoying an early bye week, the strict focus of the week is on Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars. What was supposed to fairly easy win, one in which Leach's Cougars worked out some of the kinks displayed in last week's season opening loss to BYU, quickly became a dog fight between two surprisingly even teams. While Washington State can be happy with the ultimate outcome of the game, a 24-20 home victory over Eastern Washington, the inconsistency of the Cougars' allegedly high-powered offense remains a concern.
Washington State failed to score even a single touchdown in its season-opening defeat, but the Cougars' offensive aimed to get in sync and put up some gaudy numbers against their FCS opponent. Unfortunately for the offense, Eastern Washington took a page out of BYU's defensive game plan and frustrated Washington State's offense throughout much of the game.
For an offense returning the majority of its core from the 2011 season that saw the Cougars average 342 passing yards/game, the 247 passing yards (227 if you include sack yardage) accumulated on Saturday was another early-season disappointment. Eastern Washington countered the Cougars' Air Raid attack by consistently dropping eight defenders while rushing just three. Eastern Washington found different ways to disguise its fronts before flooding the passing zones with defenders, sometimes opting to go with just three down linemen, other times going with a fourth who would drop into coverage.
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The bread and butter of Mike Leach's offenses over the years have been short, high-percentage passing plays that often act as a replacement for the running game. In the opening two weeks of the season, both BYU and Eastern Washington have consistently rushed just three defenders, flooding the short passing zones. On Saturday, Eastern Washington consistently dropped a defensive tackle into the short hole to disrupt Leach's renowned short crossing patterns. Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel (before leaving the game due to injury) consistently struggled to find open wideouts in these eight-man zone coverage, and was often forced to scramble for short gains.
To counteract these eight-man zones, Washington State eventually had to do something that had to drive Mike Leach crazy: commit to the running game. In a stark contrast to Leach's offensive philosophy, Washington State ran the ball a startling 27 times, not including sacks. Contrary to last week's running performance, one in which Washington State rushed 13 times for just 17 yards, the Cougars found moderate success on the ground this week rushing for 128 non-sack yards (4.7 per carry).
In a game where the Cougars had to turn to their running game, it would have been interesting to see Leach utilize the run-heavy Pistol formation a bit more. The Pistol once again played a minimal role in Washington State's game plan. The Cougars ran the formation just five times this week after only running it three times in their opener, and once again, every play out of the Pistol was a running play for Washington State. Over the first two weeks of the season, the Cougars have lined up in the Pistol a total of eight times, running on all eight plays for a grand total of 15 yards (1.9 per carry). The early season tendency of the Cougars to only run the ball out of the Pistol makes one wonder if the Cougars are merely setting up a play-action package for weeks to come.
Jeff Tuel had a solid, if unspectacular showing on Saturday, going 20-for-26 for 171 and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Tuel left in the fourth quarter due to injury and sophomore Conner Halliday came on to go 5-for-11 for 76 yards and an interception. Next week's starter for Washington State's road game at UNLV has not been announced.
The explosive duo at wideout, Marquess Wilson and Gabe Marks, once again had a fairly quiet week. Wilson had seven targets, catching four of them for 47 yards. Marks had five targets, catching three for 77 yards. As we mentioned last week, if Leach's Air Raid offense is ever going to take flight this season, Washington State is going to have to get a lot more production out of Wilson and Marks.
Luckily for the Cougars, Isiah Myers stepped up in a big way. Coming off a five-catch performance against BYU in Week 1, Myers was the Cougars' best playmaker on Saturday. He totaled six catches on eight targets, gained 58 yards and scored two touchdowns. Fellow receiver Brett Bartolone also tacked on five catches in seven chances, but gained just 15 yards. He was primarily targeted on bubbles and short crosses that were quickly eaten up by the eight-man coverages of Eastern Washington.
Coach Leach told Christian Caple of The Spokesman-Review, "I think on all sides of the ball we're explosive, now we have to be consistent." Twenty-four first-half points, followed up by zero in the second-half, seem to back-up Leach's sentiment. A lost fumble on the one-yard line and a pair of touchdowns called back by penalties stifled the Cougars' second-half attack Saturday. Struggles on third down also continued to stifle the Cougars' consistency. This week, the Cougars went 6-for-15 on third downs Saturday after going just 5-for-15 in the opener. With a season-long third down conversion percentage of 37%, it is easy to see why the Cougars have struggled to sustain drives and put up consistent points.
This week, the Cougars again try to find their claws on offense against a UNLV squad coming off an embarrassing loss to Northern Arizona. Regardless of which quarterback takes the reins, Leach will be looking for more offensive consistency by improving his third-down success. Getting his two playmakers on the outside, Wilson and Marks, more involved in the game plan would be a great way to help an offensive that has lacked consistency and explosiveness. On the other side of the country, West Virginia returns from its bye week to face a solid James Madison squad that ranks fourth in the FCS. While West Virginia looks to continue the offensive onslaught it displayed in its Week 1 victory, Mike Leach and his underperforming Cougars hope to shake off more rust.