WSU's punters had a tough time against Cal. But was that more exception or norm? How they bounce back this week will be telling.
In its loss to Cal last week, Washington State imploded in every phase of the game, and special teams was no exception.
Mitchell Cox had a cringe-worthy 1-yard punt, the punt team allowed a 31-yard return on a 38-yard punt, normally reliable kicker Erik Powell missed one field goal and Renard Bell’s opening kickoff return for a touchdown was called back on an illegal block.
“It was kind of a strange night,” WSU special teams coach Eric Mele said Thursday.
The 15th-ranked Cougars (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) have since moved on. Beating Colorado (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday at Martin Stadium is now the next challenge, and Mele says special teams will rebound.
They want to go back to being the squad that has changed the way WSU football coach Mike Leach approaches fourth downs.
Leach is known for his penchant for going for it on fourth down conversions because he’s always believed that, statistically, it gives his team a better chance of success. Yet, this season, the Cougars have been punted more and attempted fourth-down conversions at the lowest rate of the Leach era at WSU.
The Cougars averaged just over 32 fourth down conversion attempts per season in Leach’s first five years in Pullman. But WSU is 6 of 9 on fourth down conversion attempts this season, and entering the Cal game, WSU had only attempted six fourth-down conversion attempts on the year, converting four.
The rise of the Cougars’ defense – they rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 288.3 yards per game – has certainly played a key role in Leach’s shift in fourth down philosophy because, as running backs coach Jim Mastro explained last week, “In the past, we felt like we had to score on every drive. When you have that kind of pressure of you as an offense, that’s tough. You’re afraid to punt.”
But Leach said last week that the dramatic decrease in his fourth down conversion attempts also directly correlates to his increased confidence in special teams because Powell had gotten “more reliable at kicking field goals” and “Powell’s done a good job of dropping punts inside the 10.”
Though, Leach noted even then, “I’m not sure that my current, more conservative approach is correct because I do think we’d have more points to show for it if we went for it on fourth down more, which we may.”
Last Friday, Leach went back to pressing on fourth downs. In the loss against Cal, WSU attempted three fourth down conversions and successfully converted two.
Still, last week’s game might not necessarily mean Leach has reverted to his aggressive tendency to go for it on fourth down.
Two of WSU’s three fourth down attempts against Cal came in the fourth quarter, when the Cougars were pressing because they trailed Cal. Two also came after an uncharacteristically rough first half for WSU’s special teams.
“For me, personally, that first half for special teams last week was probably the worst since I’ve been doing it,” Mele said. “I felt we could have helped keep the team in the game a lot closer.”
Until last week’s debacle in Berkeley, the Cougars’ special teams’ units had quietly become one of the team’s strengths this season.
Powell was on a hot streak – off to a 12-of-13 start on field goals – and had earned two-straight Pac-12 Special Teams player of the week awards after making seven field goals combined in wins against Oregon and USC.
On punts, he, Kyle Sweet and Mitchell Cox were steady enough that between their performance and WSU’s much-improved defense, Leach strayed from his aggressive fourth down philosophy and called for the punt team whenever the offense got into a jam.
But WSU struggled in the punt game against the Bears, with Cox’s 1-yard punt sticking out as the low point.
“It’s probably the worst punt he’s had over the course of two weeks,” Mele said. “He just didn’t execute.”
Now, Mele wants to see more consistency from his punters down the stretch.
The Cougars have used three punters this year. They like Powell in some situations because the roll the ball gets coming off his strong left leg can be tough to catch.
Statistically, Powell has been the best of the three punters. Four of his 14 punts have gone for 50-plus yards, and he’s dropped two inside the 20, with one punt going for a touchback.
“Powell, when he’s punting well, his balls will be bomb-shocks,” Mele said. “We like rolling him too, and when we’re backed up, we like using him. But if we get caught on certain hashes, if you’re rolling Sweet right, and Powell left, you kinda run out of room.”
However, WSU does not rely solely on Powell on punts because between field goals and kickoffs, “he’s got a lot on his plate” Mele said. So they also use right-footed Kyle Sweet on rugby punts, and Cox has carved out a niche as the Cougars’ more traditional punter.
Cox “has been kicking the sky kicks, and (until last week) he’s 5-for-5 for us on those,” Mele said. “He’s a veteran guy, a backup kickoff guy and backup field goal kicker. He has good hang time that’s over the distance that you want.”
Mele’s punters want to show their head coach that last week’s bad game was an anomaly. They want Leach to be confident enough in their abilities to send out the punt team instead of going for it on fourth downs.
“It’s like anything else – if you run the ball and get 10 yards you’re more inclined to run more,” Mele said. “So when it’s our turn to punt and it’s a short field and Cox goes out and drops it on 9 yard line, that’s ideal.”