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August 31, 2012 at 9:58 PM

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Expressing concern, not panic, over Mike Leach's Washington State debut

Photo credit: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times
Mike Leach will have better days (we think).

And so, with Mike Leach tripping on the red carpet in first game at Washington State, a time-honored football tradition of overreaction commences.

This probably isn't a good time to tell you that flogging is a popular way to punish pirates for their misdeeds.

Discipline the Pirate of the Palouse this early?

Nah, I'll pass.

You should, too.

Leach will be fine. Thursday night's 30-6 thwacking at BYU was concerning, but the Cougars will be fine. Make no mistake, though: The premature celebration is over. This was an embarrassing performance given all the preseason hype for Leach. The Cougars enjoyed an eight-month party after they pulled off an incredible hire that will lead to the program's resurgence, but more than anything, the BYU whuppin' revealed just how difficult this turnaround will be.

It wasn't just that the Cougars lost; most optimists even figured a season-opening road victory over a quality foe would be unlikely. It's the way the Cougars lost that created so much fear. They were timid. They were mentally meek. They were as much of a non-factor on defense as expected. Jeff Tuel, a very good quarterback, ran what should be a quick-hitting offense with great tempo at the pace of a family taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. As a result, Leach's innovative spread offense -- his great advantage as a coach -- appeared to be outdated for a night.

How discouraging was it to read this quote from Leach? "We've got to be a mentally tougher team," he told reporters afterward. "When something negative happens, we can't have these basset-hound looks on the sidelines. Right now, we're too fragile. It's too easy for us to get disappointed."

Leach is supposedly guaranteed to provide two things: offensive creativity and swagger. The Cougars had neither Thursday.

Of course, it's quite common for a team that hasn't had success to go through a process of learning how to win and learning how to believe. Leach hasn't sped up that process yet. But he must do so if the Cougars are to make a bowl appearance in his first season. Remember that all of Leach's 10 teams at Texas Tech went to a bowl. That's his standard. And that's what many are expecting this season.

Let's take a moment for some perspective, though. Check out how some prominent offensive gurus have fared recently after taking over a program.

  • Chip Kelly, Oregon: 152 total yards in a 19-8 lost to Boise State in his 2009 debut.
  • Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: 362 total yards in an unimpressive 24-15 victory over Central Florida in his 2005 debut.
  • Bobby Petrino, Arkansas: 394 total yards in an unimpressive 28-24 victory over Western Illinois in his 2008 debut.
  • Rich Rodriguez, Michigan: 203 yards in a 25-23 loss to Utah in his 2008 debut.
  • Leach, Texas Tech: 255 total yards in an unimpressive 24-3 victory over New Mexico in his 2000 debut.

With the exception of Rodriguez, who was a bad fit at Michigan, all of those offensive gurus went on to have success and prove that first impressions aren't that important on offense. Few offenses function properly this early in the season. It's also quite common for spread offenses to struggle in openers against quality competition because opponents have an entire offseason to prepare an attack. Once the season begins, spread offenses grow even more dangerous because the lack of preparation time for defenses.

So, the Cougars' feeble offensive output of 224 yards and 3.7 yards per play should wind up being an aberration. If they don't show marked improvement next week against Eastern Washington, prepare to fret. If Tuel produces only 229 yards on 45 pass attempts and the Cougars run for negative yardage again, prepare to fret. For now, though, this is still a developing team that has three manageable games (Eastern Washington, UNLV, Colorado) coming up, which should stabilize the Cougars.

Yes, BYU exposed Washington State and provided competitors with some game tape that will give them hope and a strategy to copy. But the Cougars will improve. They have to improve. Leach has never endured a season with an offense that doesn't turn explosive. He has too many weapons for this team to be his first inept offering.

This is where Leach needs to earn his $2.25 million salary. This is where a coach proves his genius -- by making the proper adjustments.

After a humiliating debut Thursday night, Leach's rebuilding assignment seemingly grew more difficult. But you knew it wouldn't be all smiles and press-conference jokes, didn't you?

If nothing else, this game reminded Leach that he's still in a role he loves.

The underdog.

To him, it looks much better than a basset hound.

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