The football season is a marathon, not a sprint, and Mike Leach's Cougars have got their work cut out for them in 2012. Washington State, to get things on the right foot, has to improve their defensive play, protect Jeff Tuel and find a way to run the ball.
Leach's debut saw the Cougars lose 30-6 to BYU in a game that was ugly on both sides of the ball. The defense hemorrhaged yardage, on the air and on the ground. The offense couldn't pick up first downs, couldn't run the ball and couldn't get into the end zone.
Star wideout Marquess Wilson was held to four catches on 61 yards, no touchdowns by a BYU defense that is not going to put many, if any, defensive backs into the NFL.
For people who thought Leach was an instant Mr. Fix-It, this was the worst sort of coming-out party. One where his team got embarrassed and his supposedly potent offense was anything but. Fixing Washington State is going to take work, especially after the Cougars put up their lowest point total since 2010's Arizona State game.
The first move for this team should be to work on the defense, a unit that truly looked to be an afterthought during the contest Thursday night. There were pre-snap missed alignments, post-snap missed assignments, poor pursuit angles, missed tackles and bad tackling technique. It was a mess.
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske needs to work on so many things, from basics to schematic minutiae that this is going to be a long term project. First step, get back to basics. This team needs to tackle.
Tackling drills, tackle in practice, work on angle tackling, roll tackling, gang tackling. Tackling is about desire, and while they might not have a full grasp of the scheme yet, tackling and getting 11 hats to the ball is something that they most certainly should be able to do.
The same goes for angles. Work pursuit angles, do pursuit drills. This team, the entire back-seven, needs to work on coming downhill to make their run-fits.
Linebackers flowing too fast, with their heads in front of the football and opening up gaping cutback lanes. Safeties coming down too hard inside and giving up the corner. Cornerbacks surrendering their outside shoulders to force on a run and letting blockers pin them inside.
Notice, none of this is actual schematic. The just need to work on approaching the ball carrier and getting him to the ground. That has to be job one. One way, schematically, that Breske can help them is by simplifying the defense.
They've only had a spring and a fall camp in the system; don't put too much on their plates. Let them get the basics of the defense first, understand how to do those things flawlessly, without much thinking involved, and then spoon-feed them a bit more.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Pirate has work to do as well. The team clearly has a sound grasp of the system, that's a plus. Jeff Tuell completed 75 percent of his passes, he was hitting wide receivers consistently. However, the 5.1 yards per completion is telling; guys were not getting open downfield, and in the few times they were open, Tuel missed them.
In fairness to Tuel, he missed a few passes because he was under duress. The Cougars only gave up three sacks to BYU, but Tuel was hurried and harried all evening.
The offensive line needs work. Tuel needs a little time to work the Air Raid; if he's under fire from the defense, he's forced to throw the check-down passes that yield the 5.1 yards per completion and, more importantly, fall short of first downs.
The offensive line has to help Washington State sustain drives. That means protecting Tuel and being able to run the football. Negative rushing yards is not helping their cause. It allows teams to put Washington State in second and long, allows for total disregard for the run game and focusing in on stopping the pass.
If you can't be balanced and pick up first downs, you're not going to win many football games. Fixing the offensive line, giving them things they can do, is job one for this offense.
Tuel is not going to outsprint anyone, but moving the pocket through half or full rolls might aid his offensive line in helping him stay upright. More importantly it would give his receivers time to get into their routes and help in increasing first down production.
Players take time to get open, if you're running for your life in a collapsing pocket, you don't often see the intermediate routes getting free.
As for running the ball, find something these guys can do. They're an undersized offensive line by BCS football standards. That means they're too light in the pants to blow defensive lineman off the ball and power through them. It is on Mike Leach, for the benefit of his team, to find a way to achieve success in the run game.
While the Cougs do have a lot of work cut out for them, there is a big positive coming out of this game; every team is not BYU. BYU is one of the most disciplined teams in the country, playing in a raucous locale to kickoff the season.
Every game is not going to be like that. They have mistake-prone opponents on their schedule, and in those games they'll find the run game and pass game far more effective than they did against a mature, polished BYU football team.