Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor
For as out of sync as Luke Falk looked last night, with the exception of the team’s first and last scoring drives, let’s be clear; WSU does not have a problem with its redshirt junior quarterback.
“I’m not focused on that at all,” Falk said when asked about his status for next season after the game. “All my effort has been toward the team. Next question.”
Good, because Falk sure did not look the part Tuesday night in the Cougars’ 17-12 Holiday Bowl loss to Minnesota, throwing for just 264 yards and one garbage time touchdown.
Let’s also establish that the team’s three-game losing streak to end the season, culminated with a disinterested and post-Apple Cup hangover effort against a reeling Gophers program, is not indicative of Head Coach Mike Leach’s play calling abilities.
Not exactly sure why the team deviated from its offensive strategy on the opening drive, ripping off counters, screens and curls to the outside on a 17-play, 76-yard effort that resulted in a field goal. Minnesota blitzed off the edge all game, played receivers close to the line of scrimmage and stuffed the box up the middle, so it was certainly odd to see WSU calling dives and throwing the ball deep with a rickety quarterback.
“I don’t know how that happens,” redshirt senior Gabe Marks said after his final game for WSU. “I don’t know how you can go and win eight games in a row against top competition and then just, I don’t know.”
Wondering the same thing, Gabe. Could not have said it better myself.
But Falk and Leach’s evolving air raid offense has brought WSU football back to relevance among other program-wide improvements, so it’s tough to declare an off-night for the both of them as an indicator of why the Cougars accounted for only 303 yards of offense and lost a game everyone pegged them to win.
What we have here folks, is neither a talent pool problem nor an issue with offensive or defensive identity. WSU football is caught full bore in a struggle to define its culture, and it reared its ugly head again in the Holiday Bowl.
To review, a second-consecutive loss to an FCS school causes one to ponder why the program has failed to win a week one game under Leach, especially when this year’s squad looked no better a week later in a close loss at Boise State.
More importantly though, riding an eight-game winning streak following a deflating start to the season, what variables were at play internally that potentially explain how the team deviated from what worked in preparation and play calling on its collapse to end the season?
Did senior wide receiver River Cracraft’s season-ending ACL injury gut the soul of a unit? Was the winning streak misleading, as seven of those wins came against teams with a losing record, and did it infatuate the public with the idea that the Cougars could play with stronger opponents (see no. 4 Washington and No. 10 Colorado)
There’s no real answer here. At least not right now. The parallels remain the same, however.
WSU was pushed backwards in the trenches by Minnesota, sporadic on offense and failed to open up the creativity in the playbook and adjust mid-game. Sound like a familiar narrative?
“If that’s the case, somehow it’s a total dereliction on our part as coaches that we have to address,” Leach said when asked if the team was too overconfident heading into the game. “The most important thing you do as a coach is you create a sense in your player that they respect all opponents, no matter who they are. I’ll be honest, there is a part of me that wonders if we did successfully.”
A petition was released Monday calling for Claeys’ firing. Minnesota was without 10 players under suspension stemming from an alleged sexual assault on Sept. 2, four of whom are defensive backs. WSU’s passing attack entered the game averaging 362.5 yards per game, third nationally and expected to outrace the Gophers 90th-ranked total offense (4,644 yards).
Yet it was Minnesota that played focused, modified its gameplan and gradually wore down the Cougars’ morale. WSU, for as good as it was between games three and 10, saw the same issues resurface offensively from its four losses.
“Play anybody and they underestimate us,” Minnesota redshirt senior safety Damarius Travis said. “Don’t matter if it’s Washington State or not, we’ve always been the underdogs.”
Sure, the Gophers disguised their blitzes and mixed up coverage nicely, but the WSU defense held Minnesota to just 280 yards of offense. Point being, the game came down to which offensive unit made plays in the second half and exited halftime with an adjusted approach.
Minnesota curled its receivers across the middle of the field, ran a flea flicker and mixed in play action passes on its 10-play, 84-yard scoring drive to open the second half and take the lead for good at 10-6 with 3:23 left in the third quarter. Before scoring with 19 seconds remaining in the game, WSU ran just 18 plays for 47 yards on its four previous drives in the second half.
There’s no individual solely to blame for this one. The Cougars were simply outworked, and that stems from practice, strategy and execution.
Both teams had the same number of practices (10) and partook in a similar series of media events, but Minnesota had everything working against it while WSU entered with a host of advantages.
At the end of the day, however, the Gophers played as though this was their most prestigious bowl game appearance in 13 years and WSU looked like it failed to evolve throughout the season.
That’s a problem with the culture created internally, and both players and coaches create it.
Photos taken by Luke Hollister and Ryan Pugh