In 2016, the Washington State Cougars opened the season with a loss to Eastern Washington, a (very good) FCS team up the road. It was the second year in a row Wazzu opened the season with a loss to an FCS team, and that will remain funny until the end of time.
The Cougars defense got torched by quarterback Gabe Gubrud and Cooper Kupp in a 45-42 loss. Years later, former Cougar running back Gerard Wicks has an explanation for that.
One thing the fans don’t know is our defense had on different wristbands, so we had half the team on defense with a different wristbands.
Say if they would call ‘Play 4,’ one side of the defense would be running Cover 3 while the other side would be blitzing. It was something crazy and we were wondering how was Cooper Kupp getting so wide open. He’s a great player, he’s outstanding, but he was wide open. It came to halftime and we figured out half the defense had on white wristbands and the other had on black wristbands, so everybody wasn’t on the same page. We blew the coverages a lot in the first half.
[Head coach Mike] Leach was, oh my God, mad is an understatement. He was hot.
So what happened?
Wazzu and Eastern combined for a streak of seven straight touchdown drives in the first half, the shortest drive being 67 yards. Most of Eastern’s were sustained drives through the air, and only one of them ended in a Kupp touchdown. That 75-yard, one-play drive is probably one of the Kupp plays being referenced by Wicks.
Here, the four defensive backs look like they should all be in cover 4 — each covering 1⁄4 of the field in equal zones. One of those four is not. The safety closer to the top of the GIF instead jumps towards the line of scrimmage. It almost looks like a mix-up between cover 3 — splitting the field into thirds — and cover 4. That leaves a hole for Kupp and a free pass to the end zone.
You can see the wristbands, too. Here’s a black one:
And here’s a white one:
How could a defense be using completely different play sheets?
It’s mind-boggling that this might’ve happened and taken so long to figure out, but football’s a hectic sport, so maybe it just slipped through.
From the screen caps above, it appears different personnel groups in the secondary were wearing different wrist bands — starters in one, backups in a different one — which can easily lead to the coverage breakdowns Wicks described.
It might all go back to paranoia on the part of WSU’s coaching staff.
At the time, the WSU coaches were worried about sign-stealing (WSU would accuse Arizona State of illegally stealing signs mere weeks later), and would frequently and quickly switch out play sheets.
All Cougar defenders, in every game and every practice, wear wristbands bearing the calls of the day. Between plays, they look to the sideline, hear a number and, if necessary, check their wrists to determine the play. The idea is to spend less time straining the memory and more time preparing to “strain to the football,” as [Defensive coordinator Alex] Grinch says.
And if you think Leach is highly conscious of opponents’ sign-stealing efforts, consider this: Grinch swaps out the wristbands as many as six times a game, just in case an opponent is trying to break his code. One game, he changed them eight times.
”I’ve got two student football managers, and they’re all over that,” said WSU equipment director Milton Neal, for whom the wristband phenomenon is a first during his 25 years at the school. “They actually wear a headset during the game, and they know exactly when to change them. Sometimes you’ve got to do it quickly during the game, and they’re really good at it.”
It’s also worth noting that Eastern opened the second half with two-straight scoring drives, each of which ended in touchdown passes to Kupp.
So maybe it wasn’t just the wristbands.
Grinch left WSU and joined the Ohio State coaching staff this offseason. His replacement, Tracy Claeys, simplified play calling, ditching the wrist bands.