After two predictable blowout victories to open the season, the No. 20 Washington State football team gets its first real test Friday night when it plays Houston in a nationally televised game on ESPN.
To pass this test at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL Houston Texans, and future games, WSU coach Mike Leach said Monday his team needs to improve a lot, despite outscoring New Mexico State and Northern Colorado 117-24.
“We’re a work in progress,” Leach said. “We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some things I wasn’t as impressed with. The first three games, you have the most improvement, and I think that we’re not just a team that’s improving, but we’re one that desperately needs to improve. If we don’t improve, we are going to be an incredibly average team.”
Leach did not spare any of his units with his blunt assessment.
“We need to be better at blocking and we need to be better at tackling, the ultimate fundamentals of football, which without, you are really not very good,” he said. “We need to be a tougher team. Right now, we are a team that does good things when things go our way. We’re scrappy in situations, but we are not a down-after-down team. In some situations, we can rise and be explosive, but we’re not as consistent as we need to be.”
Standing in the way of a perfect nonconference slate for WSU are the Cougars from Houston, coached by Leach’s friend and former colleague, Dana Holgorsen, who also runs the Air Raid offense. Leach said he has known Holgorsen since he was in high school and the two see each other a few times a year.
Holgorsen began playing at Iowa Wesleyan (1991) when Leach was an assistant coach there. The two were assistants together at Valdosta State (1993-95), then Holgorsen was an assistant under Leach for eight seasons at Texas Tech (2000-07), the final three as co-offensive coordinator.
Leach said facing a friend is not a big deal since he has done it so often.
“And once the game starts, you’re awfully busy solving the problems their team presents, without thinking about friends or coaches you’ve worked with or memory-lane stuff,” Leach said.
Houston is 1-1, having lost 49-31 at Oklahoma to open the season before beating Prairie View A&M 37-17 at home last Saturday.
Leach said Houston’s version of the Air Raid is different in that it utilizes more running plays. Through two games, Houston has averaged 238.5 yards rushing and 155.5 passing.
Houston quarterback D’Eriq King is a dual threat, having thrown for 306 yards and rushed for 102.
“He’s a good player, and you’ve just got to play sound defense,” Leach said. “Everybody has to be gap sound and you’ve got to tackle well, and you got to keep the other guys accounted for so that you can account for him as well, because he’s going to deal the ball off if he doesn’t take it himself.”
Leach reminisced on the meetings at Texas Tech when Holgorsen was coaching for him.
“They were free-forum meetings,” he said. “We wanted people to say what they think because you want to have as many eyes looking at it as possible, get as much input as possible so you can check and test the good ideas and purge the bad ideas. It’s why political correctness is so destructive in this country because that doesn’t happen on a broader scale. We had no political correctness in those meetings. If someone had something that they thought was a dumb idea, they would tell you it was a dumb idea and hopefully you wouldn’t be victimized by coaching or executing a dumb idea. ... Together, we were able to derive one of the better offenses in the country.”
*WSU’s home game against UCLA on Sept. 21 will start at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.