By Theo Lawson
The Spokesman Review
PULLMAN — If Washington State was purposefully blowing its kickoff coverage to give Erik Powell a 101 on tackling in the open field, the Cougars will be glad to know their senior kicker passed the test.
Rest assured, that was never part of the plan.
“We’re glad he made those tackles, but kind of the idea of it is … we’re not really drawing it up saying, if we do this, this and this, we can funnel the guy right to Powell and then he can make the tackle,” WSU coach Mike Leach said on Saturday after the Cougars beat Stanford 24-21 despite a few major gaffes on special teams. “I mean we’re kind of doing the opposite of that. We kind of start back, OK here’s Powell, now if all these other guys do this, this and this, they won’t get to Powell.”
The brief way of explaining what happened on Saturday? “It had an inverse effect,” Leach said.
In kickoff situations, Powell is the safety net the Cougars hope they never have to rely on, but the Vancouver, Washington, native got more tackling work than he expects in an entire season, and made pivotal stops to keep Cameron Scarlett out of the end zone on two separate occasions.
It was an eventful afternoon for Powell, and an aggravating one for special teams coach Eric Mele.
The Cougars gave up more kickoff return yards to Scarlett (127) than they did rushing yards to Stanford’s dynamic tailback, Bryce Love (69).
“We’ve had one or two the past couple weeks, which that’s probably uncharacteristic,” Mele said on Wednesday. “Then obviously, last weekend as a whole wasn’t good and Erik’s there to kind of erase a bunch of those mistakes for us, but it shouldn’t get to that point.”
In all, Stanford squeezed 173 yards out of five kick returns. Dorian Maddox darted through a mess of crimson shirts for 46 yards on the game’s opening kick and Scarlett jolted for 47 more on a return in the fourth quarter, immediately after WSU scored the go-ahead touchdown with 6:56 to play.
The Stanford returners shifted through traffic with no problem and the crowd of 32,952 nervously gasped each time they found a crease.
Putting the ball in their hands was the first no-no, according to Mele.
“We want to put the ball through the end zone,” he said.
Stanford’s Jake Bailey drilled all four of his kickoffs into the end zone. WSU returner Jamal Morrow didn’t bring the ball out once, meaning there was a 173-0 discrepancy in kick return yards between the two teams — perhaps one reason the Cardinal were able to keep the game close despite a 430-198 disparity in total offensive yards.
The Cougars rank No. 101 in the FBS, and 10th in the Pac-12, in kickoff return defense, giving up 23 yards per return. And they’re not getting much out of their own returns. WSU is 99th in the country and 11th in the Pac-12 with 19 ypr.
But it’s been an especially busy week in the film room for the coverage unit.
“(We were) overly aggressive on the first one,” he said, referring to the initial 46-yard return from Maddox. “The guy we’re kind of spilling the kick return to kind of runs in there and thinks he’s going to make the tackle and instead it kind of spills out to where he should be. So really an aggressive mistake.”
That’s preferable than the alternative.
“I can live with that one more than I can a couple of the other ones where guys are kind of throttling down to see where the return’s going and not getting off the block,” Mele said. “Not being violent, not being aggressive, not punching their hands and running their feet. Kind of getting blocked up and not fighting off the blocks and kind of trying to make a play at this point.”
Mele isn’t making any drastic changes, but he tweaked the practice regimen this week. By spending more time on the details, the special teams coach is hopeful the Cougars can make Saturday’s game at Utah less exciting for Powell.
“Kind of took away some of the running from it,” Mele said, “and really just focused on getting locked up in a block and then ripping off violently and pulling a jersey off those guys and throwing them one direction or the other.”