PULLMAN — Now that Washington State has cleared the puff pastries from the table, the Cougars can focus on the main course of their nonconference schedule.
WSU, ranked No. 20 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, has rung up 117 points on both of its first two opponents while the Cougars have allowed only 24. They rank top-10 in the country in multiple categories, including total offense (sixth), scoring offense (fifth) and, unsurprisingly, passing yards (first). Quarterback Anthony Gordon is second nationally in passing yards (884), tied for first in passing touchdowns (9) and third in QB rating (218.9).
The defense, not as potent or effective as the offense, still ranks Top 25 nationally in points allowed per game (12) and the Cougars are tied for first in turnover margin, with seven turnovers gained and only one lost.
Which of those numbers are big misnomers and which are an accurate representation of the 2019 Cougars? Friday’s contest in Houston will give us a better idea. For now, let’s rewind Saturday’s 59-17 win over Northern Colorado.
1. Run fits
In 2018, Northern Colorado’s rushing offense ranked last in the Big Sky Conference, at 1,199 total yards on 388 attempts (3.1 yards per carry) and just 13 touchdowns. Washington State’s run defense, meanwhile, ranked third in the Pac-12, conceding 1,839 yards and surrendering 21 touchdowns.
How then, did the FCS Bears spring for 216 yards on 54 rushing attempts (4.0 yards per carry) in Saturday’s game and punch in two touchdowns?
“It was just an overall defensive thing, it’s overall doing your job,” WSU linebacker Jahad Woods said. “When we do our job, we play really good defense. When we don’t do our job, just stuff like that happens. So it’s just a collective thing we have to improve on.”
UNC’s running backs, mainly Milo Hall and Jullen Ison, wiggled through Washington State tacklers, rarely going down after initial contact. The Cougars often seemed content with getting a hand on Hall and Isom, or wrapping the ball carriers up with one arm. That won’t fly against other opponents, let alone the elite tailbacks the Cougars will come across in the Pac-12.
WSU faces a dynamic run-pass QB threat with Houston’s D’Eriq King on Friday, then the Cougars see a trio of 1,000-yard backs in Pac-12 play: UCLA’s Joshua Kelley, Utah’s Zach Moss and finally Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin.
There was some sense after the game players were lending a hand to a teammate rather than exclusively focusing on their own job. Especially up front, it can be tempting to plug two gaps at the same time, but WSU’s defensive success over the past four or five years has been the byproduct of every player executing his own assignment, rather than that of a teammate.
“Well, what happened is the running back was doing a lot of jump cuts so everybody just has to do their job,” nose tackle Lamonte McDougle said. “I think one or two times, I was concerned about filling up another gap and my gap at the same time. Just need to make sure everybody concentrates on their position and playing their role.”
2. Freaky freshman
According to participation reports from the first two games, five true freshman have taken the field for the Cougars already. At some point in the next few weeks, Mike Leach and his coaching staff will decide which of the rookies will use a redshirt this season and which ones will contribute for WSU going forward.
I anticipate linebacker Travion Brown will be part of the latter category.
After two games, Brown is already WSU’s second-leading tackler, tied with cornerback Marcus Strong with 12 takedowns and a half tackle-for-loss. Eight of those 12 came Saturday against Northern Colorado and Brown was relentless during the Bears’ first drive of the third quarter, when the linebacker got his hat on three consecutive tackles before Dallas Hobbs forced a fumble a few plays later.
“I think his first series in, he was on every tackle,” fellow linebacker Justus Rogers said. “I’m like, give some tackles to some other teammates; where’s everybody else at? But no, he’s doing great though, he’s doing really good. Has a high motor.”
The Cougars don’t necessarily have any long-term concerns at the middle linebacker positions just yet, but Brown’s emergence could be important for a group that’s experienced some early adversity. Woods went down with an upper-body injury in the season opener and didn’t return against New Mexico State, though the junior was cleared to play Saturday against UNC and led the Cougars in tackles.
WSU suffered another linebacker injury against the Bears, as backup “Mike” Dillon Sherman left in the first half and never came back to the field. Another key depth piece, Dominick Silvels, hasn’t attended either of the first two games as he tends to what Leach told The Spokesman-Review are “personal issues.” The Cougars may not have Sherman or Silvels back to play Houston, or they could have both, but either way it would appear Brown’s first college football season won’t be limited to just four games.
“Travion, he’s a really good player, he’s impressing everybody,” Woods said. “He’s super fast — I don’t know if he’s faster than me, but he’s really fast. He’s a really good player. I’m glad to see him make plays like that.”
3. McIntosh makes a mark
At a point in the game when many fans had already left Martin Stadium, and the majority of viewers were probably flipping through their channels to find something more interesting, WSU running back Deon McIntosh punched in his first touchdown for the Cougars, running 32 yards through traffic to offer those fans still in attendance what Leach and Co. have behind sophomore Max Borghi.
After McIntosh took an inside handoff from Gage Gubrud, sidestepped one UNC defender, then another before cutting right to avoid a third tackler and finally bouncing outside to finish off the scoring run.
McIntosh led the Cougars in rushing yards, carrying the ball four times for 52 yards and an average of 13 yards per carry that was largely the result of his 32-yard TD.
Coaches seemed to favor Clay Markoff as the first player to spell Borghi in the season opener, and it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that McIntosh got the bulk of his carries.
McIntosh’s speed getting to the line of scrimmage, his juke moves and his breakaway speed — not to mention his experience as someone who’s carried the ball 265 times the past two years at Notre Dame and East Mississippi — are all things that would seem to give him an edge over Markoff.
Maybe the coaches are still waiting for McIntosh to earn his field time, maybe he still needs to adjust to the offense or maybe they’re waiting to unleash the redshirt junior against a better opponent. Either way, the Cougars will need to rest Borghi when they can, and McIntosh clearly looks like the second-best running back on this roster.
“I haven’t been tired yet, but it’s obviously really important especially as we go into the whole season,” Borghi said. “They did a good job today. Obviously you saw what Clay and Deon did. Deon had an awesome touchdown and Clay had a pretty good catch for 10 yards or so. It was good to seem them go out there and have some good plays.”