Originally published September 3rd, 2012
In an offseason filled with pirate metaphors, Thursday night’s game against BYU was sure to take the wind out of some fan’s sails. I understand the disappointment — believe me, I understand — but there are important things to take away from Thursday’s game that will set the tone for the rest of the season.
Jeff Tuel: The Cougs were down 24-6 going into the half. The offense had looked horrible, and after an initial drive that ended in an interception in the redzone, the Cougar offense fell off completely. Jeff Tuel looked lost, confused, and overwhelmed. The team was at a crossroads in the first half of the first game of the season and Twitter was on fire with alums and fans already calling for Conner Halliday. Where Paul Wulff was quick to move between quarterbacks during his tenure, Coach Leach had already made a point during interviews that a two quarterback system didn’t work. I posted on Twitter during the half (@millerdna) that Coach Leach needed to stay with Tuel, but I was still waiting to see where the team went after halftime.
Coach Leach made the absolute right decision keeping Tuel in the game. Don’t misinterpret the point here, Jeff Tuel played horribly. His 30-45 and 229 yards with 2 picks looked better on paper than it looked on TV. But Leach had to stay with Tuel to keep the confidence of the team and his system. Leach spent the offseason evaluating the team; Jeff Tuel was his pick to start the season. What kind of message do you send to the team if you pull Tuel at halftime? I understand the side that says “He’s not getting the job done, too bad.” but it’s not that simple. This was Leach’s first game as head coach. You can’t have every member of the team worried that they’ll be benched for a bad game during their first game — It neuters a team if they’re living in a constant fear of being replaced. It’s different for tenured coaches with an established system, but that’s not what the team has right now. Paul Wulff would have pulled Tuel at the half. He would have sent Halliday into an already losing situation, and Tuel wouldn’t have had the chance to develop as a player or as a man. By sending Tuel back out in the second half, Coach Leach was telling Tuel “This is your mess, get back out there and clean it up!” Coach Leach was sending a message to the team, and a message to Tuel too. Yes, you’re playing shitty, but you’re still my quarterback.
The Defense: 24 points in the first half, and 6 points in the second. BYU pulled up towards the end of the game, but the defense showed a lot of character. I was impressed at the team’s heart. The defense didn’t give up after spending over 35 minutes on the field! They didn’t play great, but they played hard, and that’s a good start. I think everyone had two expectations going into the game: 1) The Cougs would score a ton of points and 2) The defense would probably give up a ton of points, so to see the D come in and put it out there was a good surprise during a game that could have gotten really ugly, really quick.
Marquess Wilson: Wilson needs to work on his body language. I love Marquess as a player, but there’s still an underlying maturity issue for him. By the end of the game, Wilson looked frustrated. I understand why, he was open a lot. But showing it on the field isn’t the way to do it. Marquees needs to pull Tuel aside off the field. He needs to work with his coaches on the sidelines. The minute you show it on the field, the defense keys on it and exploits it. They’re going to push harder at the quarterback and they’re going to jaw hard at the receiver on the field.
The Culture: Coach Leach talked about it after the game. Don’t be afraid to make a play. The Cougars and Huskies are a Ying/Yang in College Football. The Huskies overestimate their talent, and play with an overconfidence that at times has disappointed the team and their fans on the field (a real shame). The Cougars are the polar opposite. They haven’t been to a Bowl since their explosive victory over Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. The Cougs play like a team that’s afraid to lose. They’ve shown a lot of heart and they’ve won games they “shouldn’t have”, but there’s always been an underlying fear of failure. It kills me to admit that. As a Cougar alum I expect to win everyday, so it hurts to think that the team doesn’t. Don’t confuse that with wanting to win. I know the team wants to win, but do they expect it? That’s where Coach Leach is going to have to fight. He needs to change the culture of the team, which goes right back to point one — How do you change the culture of a team? You set the expectation of competing hard and expecting to win, and you don’t pull your starting quarterback at halftime of your first game with the team.
It’s OK to be frustrated by the loss. I am too. I expected a win — I expect a win every game. Understand, Coach Leach will turn this team around, but it will start with attitude then ability. When the team believes they can win they’ll be dangerous. I’m excited to see it, but win or lose, I will always be a Coug.