BRADEN JOHNSON | Evergreen columnist
Mike Leach may have a future as an odds maker handicapping fights as soon as he calls it quits as a football coach.
His public lambasting of WSU’s offensive line on Monday indicated he’s brutally honest and able to let go of personal biases when setting the odds.
“Pick out whoever happens to be your favorite of our offensive lineman, whoever you think is the toughest,” Leach said, hypothesizing a “fight to the death” in the Cougars’ team room. “And now, whoever is the softest on that Boise State [defensive line], you bring him in here.
“All that’s going to be left of our offensive lineman is a grease spot in the end. Okay? That Boise State D-lineman will smoke our offensive lineman so bad. If you don’t believe me, just turn on that game the other night and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.”
I guess now might be a good time for the Cougars’ offense, which took 53 minutes to register its first offensive touchdown in last week’s triple overtime win over Boise State, to take on an Oregon State team ranked 115th out of 129 teams in total defense, according to FBS Football Stats. In three games played, the Beavers’ defense (1-2) surrendered 1,451 total yards of offense and is allowing 6.31 yards per play.
Don’t tell that to Leach, though. Despite Oregon State allowing 253 rushing yards in a 48-14 loss to Minnesota last week, the sixth-year head coach wasn’t ready to commit to a run-first approach on Saturday.
“I mean, we’re going to try and run it some,” he said. “If our offensive linemen get pounded again, we’ll probably run it a whole lot less. So we’ll see if they’re as tough as the Oregon State D-line.”
Tuck away any ideas of WSU having a quarterback controversy. As loose as redshirt sophomore Tyler Hilinski played in relief of third-year starter Luke Falk, it is not the most relevant issue surrounding Cougar football in week three — especially since Falk, who Leach said is starting Saturday, has torched the Beavers for 1,293 yards and 16 touchdowns in three starts.
Let’s focus more on where the culture and toughness of this program is at. As porous as OSU has looked on defense through three games, it’s going to come up Saturday. Leach sure did not seem to think it’s where it needs to be, and sensed similar themes at this time last year after the Cougars’ 0-2 start, in his comparison of the team’s atmosphere to that of a “junior college softball game.”
Coming off an improbable win, the Cougars are favored by three touchdowns over the Beavers. Many pundits have the Cougars pegged to win by a larger margin. But remember how WSU, riding a five-game winning streak entering last season’s matchup in Corvallis, was beaten to a pulp on the ground by OSU junior running back Ryan Nall en route to a 24-6 halftime deficit?
Not saying it’s going to happen again, considering Nall was held to 31 yards on the ground last week as teams have forced OSU’s first-year starting quarterback Jake Luton to beat them through the air. Still, last year’s game dramatizes WSU’s struggles in consistently playing as a tough-minded team.
“To get punked by that team and to play like that, that’s not how we wanted to finish that game,” WSU junior receiver Kyle Sweet said of last year’s contest. “So we just made a decision as a team to step up and do our jobs.”
The entirety of the WSU football team needs to have that mentality, and for more than just two quarters of play. Leach was complimentary of OSU and third-year head coach Gary Andersen, saying that the Beavers “are an emerging team and are lucky to have [Anderson],” but this is probably the most winnable Pac-12 game on the Cougars’ schedule.
One of Leach’s favorite slogans, “Respect everyone, fear no one,” is displayed all throughout the Cougar Football Complex. From the weight room to the locker room, it largely defines the identity the coaching staff desires this program to adopt. In the 2017 season, that starts with a complete performance against a Beavers’ team it matches up with better in all three phases.
“Oregon State is a little easier on the eyes in terms of shifts and motions and all that,” said redshirt senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “That’s going to be a little relieving, but they’ve got big backs and they’re a Pac-12 team. So we’ve got to treat the game as such.”
For the Cougars, Saturday’s game is about reaffirming its standing toward the top of the Pac-12 and meeting the expectations they have set for themselves as conference play begins. Specifically, that starts with “tackling low,” as Pelluer said, and leaving no doubt on the scoreboard for 60 minutes of play.
Could WSU get away with another performance like it had for the first three-and-a-half quarters of play against Boise State and still come out on top against OSU? Probably.
But that’s not the measuring stick being used in this game. Leach steadily acknowledged throughout practice that the play of his offensive line improved, as did the collective performance of other position groups.