The FX Network must have read our minds. One week after the James Madison at West Virginia game was almost impossible to view on television (resulting in a one-week Leach v. Holgorsen bye), we were given a solid by a back-to-back viewing of West Virginia and Washington State. The first of the two games, Maryland at West Virginia, turned out to be nothing more than your typical ‘ho-hum’ victory by the superior Mountaineers. But in the second game of the double header, a match-up between struggling Colorado and Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars, patient viewers were rewarded with an epic fourth quarter comeback (or collapse, depending how you’re looking at it) enabled by big plays and questionable coaching decisions.
The gap between Dana Holgorsen’s top-ten West Virginia and Mike Leach’s mediocre-at-best Cougars was staggering. West Virginia, a team battling the elements and facing its first BCS conference opponent of the season, methodically rolled out a 31-21 victory, despite not playing at the level to which they are accustomed. Washington State, meanwhile, started out by playing its best three quarters of the season before its deficiencies were eventually exposed.
Let’s start in Morgantown. Tavon Austin followed up a strong showing last week with his first (of what likely will be many) monster game of the season. Austin had 13 catches on 17 targets for 179 yards and three touchdowns. For those who are familiar with West Virginia’s Air Raid attack, what was even more impressive about Austin’s day is the fact he didn’t rack up a bunch of cheap receptions via the shovel pass as he often does. Against Maryland, Austin had four catches thrown at least 14 yards downfield. As if the opponent didn’t have enough to worry about with Austin’s much-celebrated run-after-the-catch ability, a talent often utilized in West Virginia’s fly-sweep package, this past week Austin added a vertical dimension to his dynamic skill-set.
Speaking of the fly-sweep, one only need watch last season’s Orange Bowl to see how devastating the Mountaineer’s fly-sweep package can be. One week away from West Virginia’s Big-12 opener, Holgorsen chose to abandon the package and go with a pretty vanilla game plan. With West Virginia in control for the majority of the game, there was never a need for Holgorsen to dip into his bag of tricks with a 3-0 Baylor squad coming to town this upcoming weekend.
After watching Geno Smith matter-of-factly put up 338 yards and three touchdowns, it will be nice to see the Heisman front-runner perform in his first real challenge of the season. Baylor, a team used to playing against wide-open offenses in the Big-12, will present much more of a contest than the Mountaineers have gotten thus far. On the season, Smith has been about as good as it gets. In the Mountaineers’ opening three victories, he has completed 81 percent of his passes for 1,072 yards, 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
While the 46 yards rushing (not including sacks) West Virginia was held to against Maryland may be a bit disconcerting, the return of 235-pound Shawne Alston (limited by thigh bruise) as well as the usage of the fly-sweep package should get the Mountaineers ground production back on track. This week’s game against Baylor should give the nation a much better feel of how good this West Virginia offense really is.
While the debate in Morgantown may be about how high the ceiling is, the folks in Pullman, Washington must be wondering how low rock bottom can be. Facing an 0-3 Colorado team, owners of bad losses to Colorado State and Sacramento State, the Cougars must have been chomping at the bit to build on their two-game winning streak. For the first three quarters, the performance was everything fans must have been dreaming of when Mike Leach was brought in to right the ship.
For the first time this season, the Cougars had an identity on offense. Leach’s version of the Air Raid kseemed to be clicking on all cylinders as Connor Halliday threw three first-half touchdown passes. In the early-going, Washington State came out and methodically moved the ball, depending on a well-executed, short passing game before striking with the deep-ball once near the red-zone. Halliday’s first-half touchdown passes of 32, 23, and 15 yards took advantage of a shallow secondary, one seemingly concerned with stopping the short, high-percentage routes prevalent in Leach’s attack.
Overall, Halliday enjoyed a fine day with 401 yards and four touchdowns. His two favorite targets, Marquess Wilson and Gabe Marks, did their part in combining for 12 receptions for 206 yards and three scores. In the end though, it was the Cougars’ lack of running that doomed them.
The collapse started midway through the fourth quarter with Washington State enjoying a comfortable 31-14 lead. When Colorado scored with 7:06 remaining to narrow it 31-21, Washington State responded on the subsequent drive by passing on five of the next six plays (including an incompletion that left at least forty seconds on the clock). When Colorado scored again with 4:23 remaining to make it 31-28, guess how Washington State’s offense responded? You guessed it! The Cougars answered by throwing the ball on two of the three downs, both for clock-stopping incompletions. The rest is history: Colorado went the length of the field and eventually scored with just nine seconds left in the game. In hindsight, I bet Leach wished he had run a couple extra minutes of the clock when he had the chance.
The greater point here is two-fold. One, the Washington State running game is atrocious. After four games, the Cougars average just 59.0 yards rushing per game, a stat good for 123rd in the nation. The second point is that Mike Leach is very, very stubborn. Colorado would often rush just two guys off the edge and dropping nine defenders into coverage. Any other coach in the nation would likely have run draw play after draw play until the defense showed at least a little bit of respect for the running game. But not Mike Leach.
Despite constantly facing two- and three-man pass rushes, Leach ran just two draw plays the entire game (for a solid average of six yards per attempt). On the contrary, the Cougars dropped back and threw 60 passes, and that doesn’t even include sacks or scrambles. I understand that Leach loves to the throw the ball and insists that his short-passing game replaces a traditional running game, but against Colorado, sticking to that philosophy cost his team a win.
In the end, no one expects Leach’s Cougars to look anything like his protégé Horgolson’s squad this season. But when fourth-quarter collapses are easily preventable by using sound, inside-the-box thinking, the mad-scientist Leach should be blamed when his stubbornness costs the team. Hopefully for Cougars’ fans, the next time Leach is faced with this predicament he simply does the right thing, runs the clock, and walks away with the much-needed victory. But with upcoming games against Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, and Stanford, it may be a while before the Cougars are within grasp of another win.