SPOKANE – Chances are, Cougfans are quite familiar with how it all unfolded in this past Saturday’s win over ASU. But why did it happen? Why did so many of those plays work, why did Connor Halliday succeed, why did the defense hold ASU to just 68 yards rushing? Paul Wulff explained in great detail just that and more this week at the Cougar Club Luncheon.
There were few negatives from the win over Arizona State but the opening kickoff return for a TD was certainly one of them.
Special teams coach Dave Ungerer has been using true freshmen on the kickoff cover team to avoid fatigue or injuries to the starters. Sometimes that works just fine, other times it doesn’t. For the coverage unit, it hasn’t turned out well this year. Paul Wulff also noted it’s been exacerbated when combined with short kicks.
Jordan Simone and Logan Mayes have been among the better special team players this year, Simone in particular has a whopping 13 tackles this season. But the opening kickoff vs. ASU was not one of their final moments. The film showed how the middle of the picket line opened when Simone went horizontally toward the ball and Mayes tried to avoid his blocker by going to the off-ball side. Big gap. The left side gunner didn’t flatten like he should and can’t make it to the gap before the returner made it through.
BUT OVER ON defense, throughout the entire game, it was by far the most complete game from the Cougar d-line this season.
First, they held ASU to just 68 yards rushing. The third and short and fourth and short plays in the fourth quarter were exceptional. The idea is for the D-tackle to crab under the O-line in gaps. As the film showed, Brandon Rankin was superb in this aspect. And they provided the fire to finish ASU off.
On another play, the Cougs had a blitz called, one that was almost the same as what was called on the OSU first touchdown where the h-back was uncovered out of the backfield. This time, DE Adam Coerper covered the pass into flat just like it was drawn up, almost getting a pick-6. Coerper’s read and react was picture-perfect.
The defensive backs had a solid game. Damante Horton in particular was good in tight coverage. Nolan Washington clamped down on Aaron Pflugrad with help from the safety. And the safeties, Deone Bucannon, Tyree Toomer and Casey Locker, played well in run support and in coverage.
On Connor Halliday, Wulff expected good things from him but this performance was exceptional. Wulff quipped, “Four hundred ninety four yards -- not bad for a guy 6-4, 126 (pounds), huh?” Wulff went on to illustrate multiple reasons for his success.
1) Threw a very good ball to the correct spots. Right touch, trajectory and velocity most of the time. One example was on a post route to Marquees Wilson for the first TD in the third quarter. Halliday stared down the right side of ASU defensive backfield, freezing the DB while Wilson was crossing over. Then he threw to the spot where Wilson would be, providing just the right amount of loft to make it a TD.
2) Moved around in the pocket when needed to buy enough time. In the second quarter, Halliday ran a bootleg pass to the left. When protection broke down, and he couldn’t set up and throw, he turned and looped back right and found Isiah Barton in the middle for about 20 yards.
3) He ran an excellent fake on another boot and throw to Lintz on 4th and 1 in the third quarter. This extended the drive and allowed the ensuing TD pass to Wilson.
4) Halliday’s fourth TD was a thing of beauty – he looked off and froze Vontaze Burfict, allowing the lane to throw the rope low to Barton. If he stares down Barton, Burfict slides to his left and probably intercepts that pass.
THE LUNCHEON WELCOMED a special guest in attendance, Ryan Thielman, who is a childhood friend of Steve Gleason and fellow Coug. He related several poignant moments during Gleason's visit with the Cougar Nation in Pullman.
Thielman and Gleason have been great friends since they was kids. At that age, when kids are trying to fit in with a particular group, Gleason was different. He was an includer. Gleason was the best athlete in school yet he treated everyone the same-- whether you were an athlete, a music geek or academic.
As Thielman put it, "We can all learn a lot from how Gleason lives his life."
When Gleason flew into Pullman on Friday, Thielman and several other childhood friends were there to show their support and to help escort him around the athletic department. From a football side, Thielman was blown away. He said he now gets it, what Wulff is building. If possible, he is even prouder to be a Coug from his experience on Saturday.
Former player Tony Thompson, now the Assistant to the Director Student-Athlete Relations at WSU, hosted the group. Thielman said Thompson was the ultimate host, making sure Gleason was comfortable at every turn. As they wandered the halls of Bohler, the entourage encountered Marshall Lobbestael, Connor Halliday and David Gilbertson. Halliday shook Gleason's hand and said, "It's great to meet you Mr. Gleason.” Someone told the three that Gleason would be addressing the team to which Lobbestael replied, "It will be an honor to hear from you, sir.”
Saturday came and Gleason met first with Wulff and later with the team in the Indoor Practice Facility. Thielman said the entire team was stone silent on one knee, listening intently to what Gleason had to say. Thielman said there weren't many dry eyes at the conclusion of the visit. Gleason’s talk was as inspiring as it gets, and it fired up the team. Thielman received a standing ovation of his own at the end of his the luncheon in Spokane.