Mike Leach will lead his second Washington State football team onto CenturyLink Field on Saturday night against Stanford, and late in the week, the betting line favoring the Cardinal dipped into single digits.
That means it’s still a formidable task for WSU, beating the fifth-ranked team in the nation, but not as insurmountable as it was five years ago, when Stanford stifled a yawn while winning, 58-0.
The Cougars are 3-1 and have strung together four consistent efforts, a quality Leach has been preaching since he arrived 22 months ago. You can scoff at the victory over USC — the Trojans run their offense like the playbook is in Russian — but to win in L.A. with the Cougars’ recent baggage shouldn’t be minimized.
WSU’s fifth opponent presents a severe contrast in styles — Stanford’s “elephant” packages of seven and eight offensive linemen, bent on mauling you, against the Cougars’ repetitive throws, maybe 60 of them, out of the shotgun.
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Therein lies a story line. A long-held football belief is that teams predominantly throwing the ball have a fatal flaw in pursuit of winning big — lack of toughness.
When I asked Leach about it this week, he devoted eight words to the perception.
“Obviously, it’s not accurate,” he said. “I just ignore it.”
If Leach is correct, it’s probably because his success is built around a rugged, relentless offseason that belies the notion of a passing team as soft.
The Cougars run incessantly, they have the infamous wintertime “Midnight Maneuvers” — think Parris Island — they pound summer workouts, and this year, they went to the hotter, Spartan surroundings of a Lewiston junior high school for fall camp.
“Our fall camp was different,” says defensive coordinator Mike Breske. “You hear about other places, backing off to keep guys healthy. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but we had a physical camp in Lewiston.
“It’s a (tough) mentality to get through something like that.”
What’s emerged is a more steely, physical team with a resilient front seven, a defense that tackles better, and through a third of the season, a roster that has stayed healthy.
WSU appears to have graduated to the buy-in stage with Leach after a forgettable first year in which the three other Pac-12 programs with new coaches (UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State) far outstripped his.
Asked if the buy-in is greater now, Breske said, “I don’t know if it’s buy-in. I think the kids probably understand the process better, whether it be your position coach, or coach (Jason) Loscalzo in the weight room.”
Bottom line: This is the team WSU fans hoped they’d have in Leach’s first year. Gradually, the team is becoming the bigger story, not the coach.
Quarterback Connor Halliday told Pac-12 Networks recently, “To be honest, coach Leach is the exact same guy he was when he walked into Bohler Gym (when he was hired).
“The things he says to the team haven’t changed, the way he talks to the media hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is, we’re practicing a lot better so we don’t have to spend any time in that sand pit anymore.”
As for Leach, he’s still out there, not always smoothly. He drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty late in the Idaho game, and referee Michael Batlan, his mike inadvertently left on, exclaimed, “You heard what he said, right?”
Moments later, Leach was launching an F-bomb at midfield in a rift with Idaho coach Paul Petrino. Days earlier, asked if there was a possible lingering effect of an offseason fight between Idaho and WSU players that caused a serious head injury to former Cougar Mansel Simmons, Leach said, “Uh, no, I didn’t pay attention to it hardly when it happened.”
They didn’t pay him to be a diplomat. Nobody knows that better than a hundred Cougars, hardened for the hurdles ahead.