PSU’s football team hit the wall on Saturday afternoon in Cheney,Wash. In a discouraging 42-24 loss to Eastern Washington, the Vikings saw their weaknesses exploited. Their defense gave up big plays. They discovered that they couldn’t rely solely on the running of Joe Rubin to win games. And they were confronted with what has now become an inescapable fact: they don’t have a passing game.
Quarterback Sawyer Smith was an abysmal 10-28. He had only 114 yards and threw two costly interceptions. Moreover, for the passes that he did complete, his yards per completion average was an embarrassing 4.1. These numbers only solidified what PSU’s opponents have now begun to count on to beat the Vikings: make PSU pass the ball and they will lose the game.
It’s how Oregon State defeated the Vikings in PSU’s season opener and it’s the same thing that Eastern Washington did this past weekend. Smith, who as a first-year starter has not yet shown any signs that he commands the poise and confidence required to lead the offense, has unquestionably become a liability under center.
This said, the blame does not and should not rest completely upon his shoulders. PSU’s offensive play calling must at this point be called into question as well. The Vikings possess undeniable talent at the wide receiver position. Shaun Bodiford has both the hands and speed to start at a major I-A school. Allen Kennett, when catching passes out of the backfield, is as sure-handed as they come. Yet, PSU has not found a way to get the ball, in a consistent manner, to either Bodiford or Kennett.
Furthermore, the completely unimaginative and predictable play calling by PSU’s offensive coaches has forced Smith to become nothing more than a drop-off passer. Smith’s only success in his passing game has come when he has thrown screens or five-yard outs.
Unfortunately for the Vikings and their fans, these appear to be the only passes that Smith and his offensive coaches are comfortable with him throwing. For when the occasional 20-yard out or post pattern is called, Smith’s timing with his receivers has clearly been off and his throws have been erratic. Too many times he has made bad reads and forced balls into double and triple coverage. And the proof is in the numbers. Smith, on the year, has eight interceptions to only three touchdowns.
What makes this situation so troubling for the Vikings is that they have talent on the offensive side of the ball. In fact, they have more than your normal, run-of-the-mill talent. They have five games into the season and the most prolific running back in all of college football, Joe Rubin.
Rubin, after his 182-yard performance on Saturday, now has more rushing yards than any other back in the game. This is astounding. This is remarkable. Yet PSU, in the end, is not taking advantage of it. Yes, they are giving Rubin the ball 40-plus times a game. Yes, Rubin now has 854 yards on the season. But where any other team would be using play-action passing scenarios and deep-outs to exploit defenses as they began to use seven and eight man fronts to crowd the line in the attempt to stop Rubin, PSU’s “answer” is to just keep on giving the ball to Rubin. And as the loss to Eastern Washington proved on Saturday, this just will not win games against good teams.
To win, in modern-day college football, a team must be able to pass. Think USC. Think Texas, Virginia Tech, LSU. Think any other legitimate team in either I-A or I-AA college football. Since the mid-1990s, thanks to Steve Spurrier and the NFL’s use of the west coast offense, the passing game is now used to set up and establish the running game.
However, at this moment, with a promising season hanging on the wire, PSU does not have a passing game. In fact, they have the worst passing offense in the Big Sky. Smith ranks near or at the bottom of every single significant passing statistic in his conference.
As a result, the Vikings and their coaches are wasting their team’s talent. They are wasting Joe Rubin’s remarkable season. They are wasting their fans’ time and energy.
They are making it really, really hard to believe in PSU’s self-proposed claim that it deserves to be recognized as a major I-AA football school. And they are making it nearly impossible to believe that all of those empty seats at PGE Park will be filled anytime soon.