Just got done reviewing the game tape of Washington State’s 41-38 defeat to Rutgers Thursday night at CenturyLink. It was every bit as grim for the Cougars the next day as it was live.
There are a lot of reasons why this one stings for WSU, but for starters, how about these: In six of Rutgers’ final eight games of 2013, the Scarlet Knights scored 17 or fewer points. You have to go back to its opener of ’13, against Fresno State, to find a game when Rutgers had more total yards than the 496 it rolled up against WSU.
Four times last season, Rutgers was held to total offense of less than 300 yards.
And Rutgers coach Kyle Flood made a handful of staff changes in the off-season, while WSU’s remained stable.
* So forgiving was the WSU defense that it had but three tackles for loss. There was never any consistent defensive force. Rutgers was invariably running downhill as Cougars blew gaps or missed tackles. Six-foot, 230-pound fullback Michael Burton had his way with the WSU defense, especially against middle linebacker Darryl Monroe.
* The inability to match Rutgers physically raises the question: Did WSU hit enough in fall camp? The four practices I saw were pretty moderate in that department, certainly not heavy. I tend to think you err on the side of keeping people healthy rather than beating them up, and this is no knock on that preparation. But Rutgers was far more physical.
* Paul James’ 56-yard touchdown run for Rutgers wasn’t flashy, just textbook stuff in which the Knights blocked it perfectly — the proverbial hat on a hat — and, as happened all night, WSU couldn’t get off blocks or make a play.
* Mike Leach said WSU special teams were sloppy. In fact, they were worse; they were costly. Three times in the first half, WSU was called for major penalties on special teams, by Chester Su’a, Daquawn Brown and Vince Mayle. And the Cougars protected poorly enough on one punt to have it blocked if a Rutgers rusher hadn’t taken a bad angle.
* As promised, WSU played backups on the defensive line even on key drives, including, for a time, the eventual winning Rutgers drive. Not that you noticed a big dropoff from the starters.
* Isiah Myers was a standout for WSU, making some tough catches on balls that weren’t thrown perfectly. But Dominique Williams had two drops on balls that that were well-thrown.
* The Fox Sports 1 announcers, Tim Brando and Joel Klatt, were off-base in questioning Leach for not calling quicker timeouts late in the half. At the time, Rutgers was at midfield with a third-down play with about a minute left. Calling time there would have run the risk that it preserved time for Rutgers to score rather than the Cougars. And WSU was going to get the ball at the start of the third quarter (which it did, and drove for the go-ahead score). But Klatt made a great call on WSU’s final, unsuccessful throw to River Cracraft, correctly forecasting the ball would go to him.
* Johnathan Aiken, Rutgers backup safety, had a huge fourth quarter. First, with WSU ahead 31-27 after a Rutgers field goal early in the period and the Cougars having riddled Rutgers through all of the third, he sniffed out a first-down run by Jamal Morrow that set back WSU to second-and-14 on a series that resulted in one of the Cougars’ two punts. He caused the key turnover of the game, knocking the ball loose from punt returner Cracraft, and he dislodged the fourth-down pass attempt to Cracraft with 59 seconds left that proved WSU’s last gasp.
* One of WSU’s off-season themes was to finish, after the horrendous end of the New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State. Still some work to be done there.
* I found the bristling quotes afterward by Halliday and Leach intriguing, for their lack of forbearance after just one game. Halliday mentioned a lack of belief on the final drive, and Leach seemed to talk about an institutional satisfaction with being less than the best. While the observations were interesting and thought-provoking, they also border on overreaction.
* Finally, about playing Rutgers at CenturyLink, a thought that has gone unexamined: When you schedule a power-conference team (yes, Rutgers is a Big Ten newbie, but it was previously a Big East force), there ought to be a bit more respect given to the notion that this is an outfit that could come in and beat you — i.e., you don’t jack the dates around for Thursday TV. In fact, given that the visitor is a threat, you probably don’t even schedule it on Labor Day weekend, with its history of drawing poorly no matter where you play. The mere fact you have to return the game next year at Rutgers should suggest that it’s a game to be taken seriously, and worthy of every bit of fan support that might turn the outcome. So in that regard, WSU got what it deserved, a loss before a tepid crowd of 30,927 at CenturyLink. As for the tradition of the Seattle game: Good riddance.