Know Your Foe: Washington State

The struggles of the Cougar program is recent years are well documented but these days the mood in Pullman is more optimistic than it has been in a while. What are the reasons for that turnaround and how will Washington State fair against Arizona State on Thursday? Cougfan.com's Barry Bolton answers those questions and more by Sparky's Huddle members.

The consensus seems to be that the Cougars are much improved this year. How content are fans with a 4-4, 2-3 Pac-12 record or do they believe that team should have performed better at this point?

Bolton: Cougar fans, like most college football partisans, always want more. Before the season, some fans certainly would have thought 4-4 was decent – most fans had pegged next season as the year WSU starts to really get things going.

But the season-opening loss at Auburn and the game against Oregon State are two the Cougs and their fans feel they gave away and should have won. And 6-2 would feel monumentally different than 4-4.

The WSU defense has had a tough go of it of late after a strong start, which has CougFans wondering if the crimson stop corps will return to the previous levels over the next four games. The answer to that might hold the answer to the rest of the season.

If you had to list five main reasons to the turnaround from 2012, what would those reasons be?

Bolton:

1. The offensive line has improved significantly. They still have more work to do, but they've gone from horrendous (57 sacks last year) to credible (15 sacks this year).

2. The Cougar defense is playing faster and more confidently, though as mentioned earlier they've struggled more in recent games.

3. Mike Leach's recruiting is paying off but will pay off more as the recruiting classes come in and get some time to grow up.

4. Players are more comfortable and confident in Year 2 than they were in Year 1, as is usually the case with most coaching changes.

5. The Cougs are a mentally stronger team than last year.

Now that Lane Kiffin is no longer in the conference, Mike Leach appears to be the most controversial head coach in the Pac-12 and he had a couple of unflattering instances last year. Now that the honeymoon is over, how are fans embracing the quirks of the pirate?

Bolton: WSU fans are all-in with Leach. Not sure if we'd agree with "controversial" but would certainly agree with "most outspoken." Beating UW late last year was big, and knocking off USC early this year was big. Recruiting has picked up significantly under Leach and he's about as colorful as they come -- WSU fans seem to appreciate a coach who won't always just turn to churning out boilerplate coach-speak.

Cougar fans have been better able to see tangible progress this year than last, and that's led to more understanding that sustained success is a process that needs to be built. That said, there always comes a point where the wins have to come and there's really little middle ground there. If Leach can get the Cougs bowl eligible this year at 6-6, with two wins in the last four games, he'll have WSU fans singing his praises even more than they already are.

Regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, the masses will be expecting better things next year, and fueled in large part by AD Bill Moos saying before this season that he firmly expects the 2014 Cougars will be winning and going bowling in Year 3 of the Mike Leach era.

Is the offense for the Cougars as unbalanced as the national rankings show with the passing game 6th and the rushing attack 123rd? Was that to be expected this year? More reflection of coaching philosophy or personnel?

Bolton: It's most assuredly a short, precision passing offense that Mike Leach runs. The Cougars don't necessarily rush the ball much, but they do get their running backs more touches than people realize. That said, they want to get their running backs even more touches, and therefore, yards than they are getting.

Leach has often said that while at Texas Tech, his running backs led the league or were consistently right there with the leaders in all-purpose yards. That hasn't happened these first two seasons but it is expected to be the case going forward as Leach continues to land recruits that best fit his Air Raid offense.

Some other quick notes: RB Marcus Mason currently leads the Cougs in number of touches with 47 rushes and 27 receptions. They're also getting quality yards and making the most of their opportunities -- Mason is at 4.4 ypc, Teondray Caldwell is even better at 5.1 and Jeremiah Laufasa gains 4.8 yards every time he rushes the ball.

Looking at the numbers that quarterback Connor Halliday is putting up he is the epitome of a bag of mixed goods with almost just as many touchdowns passes as interceptions but averaging nearly 350 yards passing game. What is your assessment of the signal caller and has he been a disappointment?

Bolton: Halliday has done a lot of good things, but much of it has been eclipsed by the interceptions. There have been times he's moved the Cougs downfield skillfully, but just when you think WSU is headed in for the score, an interception stops the Cougars dead in their tracks.

That said, the numbers are eye-popping.

Halliday's 63.8 pass completion percentage ranks second in WSU history, he's on pace to lead the nation and break the school and Pac-12 records in completions and attempts. Halliday looked great for three quarters against Oregon State but then the fourth quarter was a disaster. The game before that, he looked like he had found something against Cal. Some feel the TD passes are about to match up better with all those yards over these last four games…

Speaking of quarterbacks, how is Phoenix Brophy's Tyler Bruggman doing in his first year, albeit on the scout ream redshirting?

Bolton: He's gotten a lot of praise this season from Leach and WSU coaches for his work in the Thursday Night Football sessions (where the Cougs dedicate much of the practice to the younger players).

He had a rough outing this last time out but apart from that, Bruggman looks to have taken smartly to Leach's system and is getting a solid year of development under his belt.

The statistics would suggest that the Washington State defense is struggling just as much as it did last year. Agree or disagree and why?

Bolton: It's been a tale of two seasons for the Cougar defense. They were solid in their two season opening road games, first at Auburn and then they were dominant at USC, allowing the Trojans less than 200 yards of total offense. Solid efforts followed against Southern Utah and Idaho. But in Week 5, Stanford blew their doors off with a passing game that was unexpected. And WSU has not been able to right the ship since, having given up lots of yards the last three games, including the win over Cal.

In looking at the season as a whole, where WSU has improved most is on the defensive line and against the run. The Cougar linebackers have been quietly solid here, but at times have struggled against the pass. The Cougar secondary has been hot and cold, and to the extremes. The Cougar offense hasn't helped with a huge number of turnovers and giving many opponents a short field.

Still, the big question on defense for the Cougars is if WSU can return to their earlier season form or not. There are reasons to argue both sides of that. They face a difficult task this Thursday with an explosive ASU offense.

Who are the standouts on both sides of the ball that ASU fans should be aware of?

Bolton: Defensively, NT Ioane Gauta, DEs Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole are all capable of having a big night. Middle linebacker Darryl Monroe was a terror earlier in the season but has been slowed by injury the past few games. Safety Deone Bucannon is a phenomenal player and is a virtual lock to play on Sundays.

On offense, Halliday obviously but also keep your eye on receiver Gabe Marks. The Cougs' offense is designed to spread the ball around, and they have, with typically 10 or more receivers catching at least one pass. But Marks has more than twice as many grabs as anyone else.

What are some of the challenges you feel Washington State presents Arizona State on both offense and defense?

Bolton: WSU spreads you out and stresses the weak spots in a defense. If the offensive line can handle the ASU rush, the Cougs can typically move down the field with ease. But the Cougs have to be strong up front and consistently so over the course of the game, and that could be a tall order against the ASU front. WSU also needs to better take advantage of their scoring opportunities.

On defense, the Cougs need to do a better job in bringing heat to the opposing quarterback and that probably means they'll need to send more than four if the past few games are any indication. WSU also needs to maximize their ball-hawking ways and force some turnovers.

Much has been written about this game being on Halloween night, with classes canceled for the day. Therefore do you expect this to be the biggest and loudest crowd of the season? Do you feel that even has an underdog there might be more pressure on Washington State as a result of this entire setup?

Bolton: Hard to say. You would hope it's going to be large and loud but a Thursday night game in Pullman presents challenges on the alumni side for those who live a ways away, such as in the Seattle-area – plus the fact that it's Halloween might prove problematic for season ticket holders with children. Whether it's a big crowd or not, I don't see where it would result in more pressure on WSU – they need to win and get after it. And those two things are completely within their control.

What do you see as the keys to the game that would lead to a Washington State victory and what is your prediction?

Bolton: Mentioned most of it earlier, in that the Cougs need to handle to ASU rush and not stall once the field starts getting shorter, and that WSU needs to get more pressure and help out a secondary that is short on star-power save for Bucannon. The biggest thing though might be how they respond to the times ASU has success. ASU is explosive and they're coming in flying high after scoring 50-plus points each of their last two games. If the Cougs respond in kind to ASU's moments, especially with some takeaways or a long, momentum-grabbing TD drive, they have a good shot to upset ASU.

CF.C Analyst Matt Moore thinks the Cougs will hold Arizona State to one of their lowest outputs of the season, with a prediction of Cougs 38, ASU 34.


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