PULLMAN — Mike Leach is Washington State’s head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. On game days, those last two titles are probably more meaningful than the first.
When WSU has possession of the ball, Leach has a finger on just about everything that takes place, sending in play calls, managing substitutions and offering sideline tips when the opportunities arise. Then, as soon as the Cougars score or return the ball back to the opponent, Leach hands the whole operation to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
But, at a rather early juncture of WSU’s 59-17 rout of Northern Colorado Saturday afternoon, the eighth-year coach threw a wrench into his organizational structure, signaled for a timeout and herded every defensive player into a huddle near the home sideline.
The exact words Leach used are not known – and perhaps not suitable for all audiences – but the message sure seemed to get through.
The Cougars had conceded first downs on three of the previous four plays when Leach took a timeout for his sideline intervention. When the Cougars came out of the huddle, linebacker Jahad Woods hunted down Jullen Ison, clawed the ball out of the running back’s hands and watched teammate Ron Stone Jr. leap on the loose ball.
“One thing, their offense was kind of in a rhythm, so we wanted to break that,” Leach said. “Then the other thing, it seemed like we were kind of over-running some things and wanted to just get refocused, you know.”
Though WSU had far too many defensive lapses against a team picked to finish last in the Big Sky Conference, the mistakes were often followed by plays that quickly shifted momentum back to the Cougars.
Like after Stone was ejected from the game for a targeting call as officials alleged the “Rush” linebacker made helmet-to-helmet contact with UNC quarterback Jacob Knipp after the play. It seemed to tick the Cougars off as much as it did the fans, because on the next play, Bryce Beekman recovered a Milo Hall fumble that appeared to have been caused by Karson Block.
The Cougars salvaged assignment errors by forcing turnovers – four in total – and the offense made sure the defense never had to sweat, generating 594 total yards and eight touchdowns. But that doesn’t mean the players in Leach’s first-quarter huddle won’t cringe a few times when they review film next week.
“I think we did below average,” Woods said. “I think we need to do better next week. We have a really good opponent in Houston and if we want to beat them, we have to tackle better, play better overall as a defense.”
Northern Colorado accumulated 355 yards of offense – nearly 40 more than FBS opponent New Mexico State did last week – and the Bears’ tailbacks rushed for more than 200 yards.
But the Cougars got another blowout win because Anthony Gordon completed 31 of 39 passes for 464 yards and four touchdowns, hitting Brandon Arconado most often and former City College of San Francisco player Easop Winston Jr. most often in the end zone. Arconado reeled in a career-high eight passes, for 127 yards and a touchdown. Winston was responsible for the other 100-yard game, catching six passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Good as those three were, sophomore running back Max Borghi might have been the best player on offense. Borghi’s yardage wasn’t eye-popping, but he scored a career-high three touchdowns, rushing for two and catching another.
Gordon’s now 60-of-74 passing in two starts, with 884 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception – thrown on a missed read in the third quarter Saturday – and Borghi has accounted for four touchdowns on the season, with 190 all-purpose yards.
“It was my receivers who almost scored those touchdowns,” said Borghi, who didn’t do much more than finish the job on two short-yardage touchdowns after Gordon and the receivers put the Cougars close to the goal line. “I’ll give those to them, it was the O-line, they blocked well and I kind of popped it in. It’s easy to pop those in, it’ something I have to do when we get down to the goal line, but yeah it was exciting to score three.”
Woods led the defense with 10 tackles – one short of his career-high – and two other middle linebackers, Justus Rogers and Travion Brown, each had eight. Willie Taylor III, Nnamdi Oguayo and Dallas Hobbs were also credited with forced fumbles, and Skyler Thomas and Block notched recoveries.
“Anytime we take the ball over, it’s a good thing,” Woods said. “We practice it all week, every day, taking the ball away. How many did we have, like four? Yeah, this is what we preach when we practice all the time, taking the ball away and we did that tonight.”
Added nose tackle Lamonte McDougle: “Coach puts a big emphasis on getting the ball out in practice. We’ve got to get at least four or we’re running.”
The Cougars may be running for other reasons this week – for one, because they couldn’t adequately stop UNC from running all over them – but maybe, by producing four turnovers, they escaped at least some of the midweek conditioning that was coming their way.
“For (UNC’s) running, we can clean that up,” McDougle said. Then, a guarantee: “We’re gonna clean that up this week. That won’t be a problem.”