RENO, Nev. — Reviewing days later how his Washington State football team went splat in its opener in Seattle last week, coach Mike Leach added a layer of intrigue.
Talking about a defense that allowed Rutgers far more than it deserves, Leach said, “I think we were one-dimensional scheme-wise … I thought we could have thrown more stuff at ’em. I thought we got to a point where we were doing the same thing over and over again.”
To which his defensive lieutenant, coordinator Mike Breske, responded: “He’s exactly right.”
So a season of some promise got off on the wrong foot, and the Cougars have already set themselves up for a game of desperation Friday night at Nevada, a capable team figured to contend in its division of the Mountain West.
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That’s not a good place to be, nor was the WSU film room last week as defenders watched Rutgers back Paul James plow them under for 173 yards on 29 repetitive carries.
If WSU fans shuddered, it wasn’t merely because the opener went off the rails. The game evoked ghosts of Cougars past, and a program that grew a reputation as one in which offense ruled and defense got fooled.
You know: WSU, playing wild, four-hour games, the place that in the mid-’80s had a future Super Bowl MVP at quarterback (Mark Rypien) paired with an one-day all-pro at running back (Rueben Mayes), yet achieved only modestly because of its defense.
Well, Connor Halliday threw for 532 yards last week and the offense frolicked after some early misfires. The defense couldn’t get off the field, except when Rutgers was scoring quickly.
Then, when Leach — coordinator, overseer and lord of all things offense — questioned the defensive strategy, it raised some eyebrows. Leach gives Breske a wide berth with the defense, including general management of the game. During the week, Breske says of Leach, “He definitely has input.”
Post-Rutgers, Breske had little hesitation conceding that Leach’s overall take was spot-on.
“We were too vanilla too often,” he said. “We’ve got to stunt up front. We’ve got to move our people more than what we did. We’ve got to set the tempo. We’ve got to play fast.”
Breske seemed to say he was chilled by what happened on the very first play of the game. The Cougars blitzed linebacker Tana Pritchard, Rutgers picked on veteran-but-unproven corner Tracy Clark, and the Scarlet Knights had a touchdown after 16 seconds.
“Who knows, if we play it correctly?” Breske mused. “That kind of set a negative tempo right there.”
It stayed set, as a veteran front seven (minus linebacker Cyrus Coen) couldn’t shed blocks, leading Breske to say, “We’ve got to be more violent with our hands.”
So I asked Leach this week, when he’s so closely identified with the offense, how does he get across to the defense that he’s their coach, too?
“There’s a couple of ways to do it,” he said. “You can wear a nice sweater and have your hands in your pocket and just shake hands with everybody and cheerlead, which has never been my way.
“The other way is, you contribute through your expertise. I always talk to them after each practice. Being out there elbow-to-elbow calling plays, you’ll see everybody out there on the practice field. Anybody on defense that does anything pretty good, I’ll be there front-and-center every day, up close in the middle of the action.”
Leach’s history of pyrotechnic offense at Texas Tech might lead to the conclusion that defense gets short shrift, but the numbers suggest otherwise. His last five seasons, Tech’s total defense ranking settled into the midrange of the Big 12, sixth and above.
Which brings us to a must-win game here, at a place where they get cranked up to play a Pac-12 team. The quarterback, Cody Fajardo, throws well on the run, and nine Nevada starters return on defense from 2013.
It’s a two-sided challenge. Clearly, the Cougars need all hands on deck, playing violently.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org