PULLMAN — Washington State players and coaches may be idle this week, but that doesn’t mean their minds are. After consecutive losses to UCLA and Utah, the Cougars have assuredly spent much of the bye week contemplating everything that’s led to their sluggish start in Pac-12 play, which dropped them to 3-2 overall and forced a situation where now they’ll have to close the regular season 3-4 just to finish .500 and reach a fifth consecutive bowl game.
There’s plenty ailing WSU at the moment, but the Cougars can take some solace in knowing they still rank among the national leaders in total offense and have a quarterback on record-setting pace, even after the Air Raid hit a rare speed bump last weekend in Salt Lake City.
After five weeks, we take a look at five stats to explain where the Cougars have succeeded and five more that give us a better idea of their shortcomings.
8.7: How many different ways, and how often, can the Cougars utilize Max Borghi? You could make a case for Anthony Gordon being the most valuable offensive player through five games, but Borghi’s been the most consistent, as evidenced by his 8.7 yards per touch. The sophomore running back is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and 10.9 per reception, and while his usage has varied a bit, he’s been able to give WSU something — in most cases, a lot of somethings — in every game he’s played.
Borghi trotted into the end zone just once against UCLA, but he accounted for 203 yards of total offense. In the second game of the season, against Northern Colorado, he totaled just 51 all-purpose yards but punched in three touchdowns.
Borghi and Deon McIntosh haven’t proven to be as interchangeable as Borghi and James Williams were last season — at least not yet — so moving forward, the coaches have a delicate balance to strike. Borghi’s talent warrants the touches he gets, and at times he could use a few more, but it’s also essential the Cougars don’t overuse him.
22: Saturday’s 35-point loss to Utah was certainly a step back for Anthony Gordon and the offense, which had trouble moving the ball consistently underneath driving rainstorms, without reliable “Y” receiver Brandon Arconado and while facing one of the most talented defensive secondaries in the country.
Gordon passed for just one touchdown against the Utes, but he’s still on pace to challenge Colt Brennan’s single season NCAA record of 58 and, at the very least, break Jake Browning’s Pac-12 record of 43. Even though Gordon didn’t add a heaping number of TDs to his total against Utah, he’s still eight ahead of where Gardner Minshew was through five games last season. Apple Cup aside, it’s hard to imagine the offense will encounter a concoction of obstacles like they did in Salt Lake City, and all signals still point to a historically productive year for Gordon and his receivers.
92%: There are 13 teams in the Football Subdivision that are failing to score on at least 30 percent of their trips inside the red zone. The Cougars are on the opposite end of that spectrum — one of 34 teams in college football and one of three in the Pac-12 to capitalize on at least 90 percent of red zone trips.
Now, red zone statistics can be misleading. Salvaging a field goal out of a red zone trip, of course, is better than not doing so, but few things peeve a coach more than watching a kicker trot onto the field after the offense stalls inside the 20-yard line.
The Cougars have managed at least a field goal on 23 of their 25 trips into the red zone and 19 times, those drives have ended with touchdowns. They’re converting red zone trips into TDs 76 percent of the time, which is tied for second in the Pac-12 only behind Oregon.
47: It’s hard to cultivate too many positive defensive statistics right now and most of the defensive numbers I dug up for this story belong in the section below. Individually, though, a few players have been sharper than others and not surprisingly, junior linebacker Jahad Woods has inarguably been the sharpest. Some would contest Woods and other veterans need to assert themesleves as leaders right now, with the defense so discombobulated, but you can’t argue with what he’s doing between the whistles.
At Pac-12 Media Day, Woods stated one of his individual goals was to break the 100-tackle marker, and at 47 through five games he’s well on his way. If the Cougars can reach a bowl game, he’ll surely get there, but Woods has done much more than lead WSU on the tackles chart this season. The speedy inside linebacker is leading the Cougars, or tied for the team lead, in the following categories: tackles-for-loss (4.0, 1st), pass breakups (3, 1st), QB hurries (3, T-1) and forced fumbles (1, T-1).
Is it concerning a middle linebacker is No. 1 in pass breakups, especially given some of the other defensive shortcomings this team is facing? Yes, but we’ll get there in a bit. For now, just appreciate everything Woods is doing for a defense that, without him, could conceivably look much worse than it does now.
7-of-7: Blake Mazza hasn’t been placed in any crucial situations this season and while he’s made field goals in four of five games, none of his kicks have been consequential to the final outcome. But, he’s been outstanding when the Cougars have counted on him for three points, knocking in 7-of-7 field goals and all 29 of his PATs.
Special teams coach Matt Brock told me before the Houston game he and Mazza had spent a large part of the offseason working on the kicker’s “pop” to ensure he’d get enough lift on the football for the longer field goals he’d take. It’s paid dividends because while the redshirt sophomore has made all of his gimmes, he’s also hit his career long twice, setting it with a 50-yarder in the season opener and then beating it with a 51-yarder amid wet conditions at Utah last Saturday.
-7: Through the nonconference schedule, we would’ve placed WSU’s turnover margin in the top section of this story. But in Pac-12 play, it’s been one of the more atrocious numbers to look at and a massive reason the Cougars are off to an 0-2 start.
Thanks to those first three games, against teams that are now a combined 3-12, the Cougars are even in the turnover margin, with 10 committed turnovers and 10 forced turnovers. It shows how gruesome those last two games were that, at one point, WSU was top-three nationally in turnover margin. The Cougars thieved New Mexico State, Northern Colorado and Houston eight times and only gave the ball up twice, both times on interceptions from Gordon, who can’t be faulted for tossing a few every now and then with how often WSU airs it out.
WSU has now dropped to No. 65 in the country and it’s hard to imagine anybody in the country has had a tougher two-game stretch in the turnover margin than the Cougars, who gave the ball away six times against UCLA and twice more against Utah. Meanwhile, WSU’s defense only took it away once. So, after being +6 the fist three games, the Cougars are -7 the last two, signifying an unremarkable turnaround for a team that once prided itself on creating takeaways and largely avoiding their own.
5: Five pass breakups in a single game is not outstanding, but it’s bearable if you aren’t being thrown at too often. But, five pass breakups in two games when you’ve been thrown at 68 times is flat out unacceptable. There’s no disputing the Cougars have struggled on all three levels defensively, but if you’re just relying on the naked eye, it’d be hard not to judge the secondary more harshly than the other two units.
The defensive line isn’t generating sufficient pressure on quarterbacks and the linebackers aren’t taking underneath routes away, or tackling as well as they should, but the cornerbacks and safeties are the ones leaving big pockets of space between themselves and wide receivers, and making the assignment errors that have been most costly to the Cougars.
UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Utah’s Tyler Huntley both had season-high passing numbers against WSU and the Cougars contested just five balls in those games, often 5-10 yards away from merely being in a position to tip or deflect a pass. It’s hard to say whether WSU needs to change strategy or personnel at this point, but many of the breakdowns have led to explosive pass plays and the Cougars can’t afford too many of those if they want to compete with the league’s best passing offense.
The Utes, by the way, were not supposed to be one of those.
8.2: Here’s a rare example of something the Cougars have done a fine job of during the Pac-12 games, but really struggled with against those first three opponents. The 8.2 represents the number of penalties WSU is committing per game — third-most in the league, behind Arizona (9.0) and Utah (8.8).
Again, WSU has cleaned up its act some in Pac-12 play, only committing 16 in the games against UCLA and Utah. But that’s still good enough for fourth-most in the conference and it represents another area in which the Cougars have regressed since last season, committing 86 penalties in 13 games, or an average of 6.6 per game.
Five of the 16 penalties the last two games can be attributed to a single player, left tackle Liam Ryan, who was flagged four times against Utah and once against UCLA. Ryan committed two false start penalties and one hold on a single drive in the late third and early fourth quarter against the Utes, while Josh Watson and Robert Valencia added two more false start penalties to WSU’s total.
9: The Cougars could still match last year’s sack total, which led the Pac-12 and ranked near the top of the national leaderboard. Only 26 to go…
(Hopefully the sarcasm came through there).
The pass-rush was far from elite in nonconference play, as WSU recorded six sacks against NMSU, UNC and Houston, and the Cougars haven’t posed a real threat in either of the Pac-12 games either, notching just three sacks against the Bruins and the Utes, who aren’t known to be among the conference’s best in pass protection.
WSU has some fiddling to do in the secondary, but it may also need to reconfigure the defensive line, which lost three key pieces from last season — one that most figured would be hard to replace (Logan Tago) and two others that may have been more valuable to the operation than we originally thought (Nick Begg and Taylor Comfort).
39.9: We’ll give Oscar Draguicevich III this much: the junior punter recovered from some early mishaps with two strong punts — a 48-yarder and a 43-yarder — against the Utes, dealing with the same windy, rainy conditions Mazza had to navigate.
But, compared to last season and the lofty standard Draguicevich III set for himself in the offseason, the second-year punter and preseason All-Pac-12 candidate has fallen short thus far and isn’t offering up his best stuff yet.
Draguicevich III, ambitious with his personal goals, told reporters he wants to end the season ranked No. 1 nationally in net punting and every other punting category. Because he’s only punted 11 times, Draguicevich III doesn’t register on the national leaderboard, but if he did his average of 39.9 yards per punt would rank only 85th.
The Cougars are targeting 40 yards per net punt this year and have underachieved there, too, at just 33.6 after five games.