The Long Road Ahead: Mike Leach's Triumphant Return Falls Flat

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The Long Road Ahead: Mike Leach's Triumphant Return Falls Flat
Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

We all shared a moment. After more than two years away from the game, Mike Leach returned to our television sets when his team opened at BYU.

It was a joyous occasion—one I’ve been anxiously anticipating since word broke that Washington State would be featured in the late-night opener earlier this year with the magnificent swashbuckler leading them. Leach’s familiar, frequently unhinged voice and lovable four verticals had returned.

Despite having only seven wins in the past three seasons, Washington State was finally interesting again. The Cougars have been selling tickets at a ridiculous pace, and even the Las Vegas oddsmakers and bettors were feeling the effects of his return.

Things started brilliantly, too.

It was 4th-and-5 from the BYU 44 in Washington State’s first drive, and Leach didn’t flinch. Bronco Mendenhall immediately burned a timeout to get his defense set. Leach’s tune didn’t change after the brief intermission.

Very methodically, quarterback Jeff Tuel rolled out and hit wide receiver Gabe Marks in stride for a casual but important 7-yard gain. It was fearless (as if you anticipated anything else), perfectly executed and vintage Mike Leach. He was back.

Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

Unfortunately, that was it. There was no dazzling score to follow it up. In fact, Tuel threw an interception only a few plays later. It was symbolic reminder of what 2012 may have in store for the great captain.

BYU absolutely dominated Washington State on both sides, and Leach’s offensive influence was not to be found. Not this night. Leach’s team finished Thursday evening with no touchdowns (the first time that’s happened since 2006) and negative rushing yards. Despite a large helping hand from BYU in the penalty department (10 penalties for 112 yards overall), Washington State was overmatched in every facet of the 30-6 rout.

Is BYU simply this good? Is Washington State this bad? Quite simply, the answer is yes.

BYU was very impressive—outside of converting on touchdowns, because the score could’ve been much worse—and it looked the part of a top-25 team. It was getting a great push on both lines and receivers were open all night.

On the other side, Washington State struggled just about everywhere. Wide receiver Marquess Wilson hauled in a ridiculous touchdown grab only to see this play negated by a holding call. He had another big gain into BYU territory called back because of a hold as well. Tuel had very little comfort in the pocket and was off on most of his throws. The defense, well, it wasn’t as good as expected.

And perhaps that’s where this all comes full circle: expectations.

Leach Mania will now give way for the season, and the short-term prognosis isn't good. This shouldn't be shocking, but it likely will surprise those that anticipated an immediate turnaround. Although he has a capable quarterback and one of the nation's best receivers, the list of positives doesn’t stretch too far down the page. The offense will be a long work in progress, and mastering his system will take much more than an offseason of reps.

The defensive line had a handful of solid stops and pressures, but converted position players and walk-ons logged meaningful minutes on defense in Week 1. That’s likely not going to change. Not this year.

We knew all this going in. Expecting a relatively unchanged Wazzu roster to dazzle under new leadership out the gate is asking too much. We got an up-close look at just what a project Leach has on his hands, and the road to competitiveness may be longer and more turbulent than many expected.

The parade is over and the streets have cleared. Ah, it's good to have him back, but now the work begins. The offense will be potent again, the running game will have a presence and the defense will improve. It will take time, however, and Leach supporters will have to be patient.

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