Football coaches are a paranoid bunch, says Mike Leach, who's caught himself wondering about how the bye week will affect his team against UW.
Momentum is perhaps one of the most underrated factors that can change the course of a football season.
It’s also maybe the most difficult to harness.
Case in point: In 2016, Washington State lost two games, then caught lightning in a bottle and went on an eight-game win streak. Colorado put an end to that in November, and the Cougars never regained momentum, losing the Apple Cup in Pullman and then losing the Holiday Bowl to Minnesota.
This year, aided by five-straight home games to start the year, WSU’s momentum – and its national ranking – peaked in the victory over Oregon that vaulted them to No. 8, with a 6-0 record.
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The loss to Cal the following week knocked the wind out of the Cougars’ sails, and losing to Arizona didn’t help either.
But the 14th-ranked Cougars (9-2 overall, 6-2 Pac-12) righted the ship over the last two weeks, beating Stanford and Utah in succession to re-capture momentum going into their bye week.
The question now, is whether having that bye right before Saturday’s Pac-12 North-deciding Apple Cup game against No. 15 UW (9-2, 6-2) will disrupt that carefully cultivated momentum.
It’s a question even WSU coach Mike Leach can’t answer.
“You always wonder about that,” Leach said Monday. “Coaches get paranoid about off weeks, but we desperately needed it, and it seems to me our players responded real well.
“But does that run through your head? Yeah that runs through your head. We’re paranoid people and we wonder about all kinds of stuff. You just try to maintain your focus and energy.”
Leach said the Cougars practiced well last week, and the bye gave them much-needed time off for their bodies to heal.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to figure out what kind of momentum UW has going into this game. On one hand, the Huskies are coming off a clutch win over Utah that wasn’t decided until kicker Tristan Vizcaino knocked a field goal through the uprights in the dying seconds of the game. That’s the sort of win that can galvanize a team.
Conversely, UW is also only two weeks removed from watching its playoff hopes evaporate in a 30-22 defeat to Stanford, and a few days removed from realizing that Stanford’s win over Cal shut the door on its slim remaining Pac-12 title hopes.
The battle for the Pac-12 North is now a two-horse race between WSU and Stanford. Beat UW and the Cougars will clinch their first-ever Pac-12 North division title, and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.
UW’s defensive strength: its ability to reload
UW’s defense ranks fourth nationally, allowing opponents only 271.3 yards per game. The Huskies’ defense is also No. 5 in points allowed (14.5), and No. 4 against the run, giving up only 102.9 yards per game.
Despite losing four defensive players to the 2016 NFL Draft, there’s been no drop off in production, and at this point of Chris Petersen’s tenure as head coach, that’s to be expected, Leach said.
“They’re a good team. They’ve had a good defense for a while. They dumped those guys in the league and reload some more,” Leach said. “They’ve got some skill guys who are real fast, we’ve just gotta play good.”
However, UW hasn’t faced a passing offense quite like WSU’s yet this season.
“Schematically, the teams they’ve played haven’t throw it a lot this year,” said Leach, whose offense is No. 3 nationally and averages 375.3 yards per game, “They hadn’t played a lot of teams that are real determined to throw it a lot. I felt like Utah threw it more than they’re inclined to.”
Utah’s 293 passing yards were the most UW has given up this season. The Huskies also allowed 211 passing yards against Stanford, though the Cardinal won on the strength of their three rushing touchdowns.
“They’re real athletic and they run to the ball well,” Leach said of the UW defense.
Thanksgiving for the Cougs?
With the Apple Cup being played on Saturday this year, the Cougars won’t leave for Seattle until Friday. So they’ll spend Thanksgiving Day as a team playing laser tag and bowling at Zeppoz.
“You’ll see some really big people thundering down the bowling alley,” Leach said. “We pretty much dominate the whole bowling alley. (Who is) worst is hard to gauge because there are so many bad ones. But there are a handful of guys who go over there and play each other once or twice a week.
Also, “some of the biggest guys on our team love laser tag,” Leach said. “They’ll go there, crash around and blast each other with lasers.”