SunDevilSource: Washington State had a slow start last year -- losing to Portland State and then squeaking by Rutgers -- only to finish with a successful 9-4 season. The Cougars have seemingly repeated that pattern in 2016, with losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State before winning their last four games. What do you think has led to the slow starts, and also how the Cougars have strongly bounced back?
Barry Bolton: Last year after the loss to Portland State, Mike Leach was just as surprised as anyone else, saying a completely different WSU team played in the opener than he had seen in any fall camp practice leading up to it. This year is at least maybe a little easier to understand.
Eastern Washington is a damn good football team, even though it's an FCS program. Add in that Washington State played poorly and missed plenty of opportunities. As for week two, I'm probably one of the few who doesn't think Boise State is nearly as good as its lofty rankings. Still, the Broncos are not exactly a bowl of pudding either. I'm not trying to take anything away from BSU, or from Eastern Washington. From my chair, Washington State played poorly in both games, nowhere near the level the Cougars have since shown, and WSU lost both those games by three points each.
How have the Cougars bounced back? There are a number of factors but I'll limit myself to two of the bigger ones. The off-field issues and scrutiny, which have since subsided to more manageable levels, were a distraction at best, and a destructive force at worst. As much as everyone tries to limit the effect and cocoon, there are professional football players and teams where such distractions flip over the apple cart -- so expecting 18-to-23 year old college players to outperform their NFL counterparts in that particular arena is asking a lot.
Second, the Cougars' defensive line has effected one of the biggest turnarounds you’ll see over a half season’s worth of games. The first two and a quarter tilts, the Cougars' defensive line got stood up far too often. The defense as a whole wasn't playing to the whistle. The last three and three-quarter games, the defensive line has found another gear ... plus a supercharger. Maybe it took a little while to get into the flow, with defensive line coach Joe Salave'a using such a heavy rotation and moving guys around to different spots in replacing senior starters and talent.
Whatever it is, this is shaping up as Salave'a's best coaching job ever at WSU. Credit starters like defensive end Hercules Mata'afa, nose tackle Robert Barber, defensive end Daniel Ekuale and many others for the turnaround. Today’s defensive line, and the defense in general, doesn't at all resemble the version of weeks one and two.
SunDevilSource: Is this team better than the 2015 version of the Cougars? A lot of the key players are back, of course. In what respects have them improved, or taken a step back?
Bolton: Rather than fill up my answer with stats, I’ll opine with this: Yes, it is better. It might not always show up on the scoreboard, and there will still be the mistakes of youth. But the Cougar defensive and offensive lines, in my view, have outperformed the 2015 units. And that has been a pleasant surprise, because everything of course flows from and is dictated by what happens in the trenches.
Quarterback Luke Falk started cool, got very hot, and then was up and down in some horrible weather last week. But Falk has put together long stretches where his best has been better than last year's best - throws, decision making, you name it. The offensive line has (mostly) shown they can (at least) be as good as last year's unit, and there's a strong argument it will be seen as a better unit at the end of the day.
The wide receiver corps, collectively, is heating up. The linebacker play has been solid. The secondary has mostly been solid but there are still some areas where the polish needs to be applied. Still, the Cougars have started to take the ball away with greater frequency, and that can render most defensive sins moot. That brings us to the running backs.
WSU's production here has soared -- on the ground, in the passing game, blocking, etc. The trio of Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Montgomery, all underclassmen, is what Mike Leach aspires to field each season: a corps capable of leading the conference in all-purpose yards.
By the way, WSU’s 220 all-purpose yard average from its running back corps? It represents an increase of 44 percent over last season when the Cougars' backs produced an average of 153 yards per game.
SunDevilSource: Washington State seems to be running the ball a bit more this year, and doing so successfully in some games. Has that been an emphasis of Leach and in what ways has the program evolved this season with scheme or personnel?
Bolton: Adding to what's already mentioned above, it has come about organically. The three backs have all continued to develop under running backs coach Jim Mastro, whose body of work in Pullman continues to look better and better.
The offensive line has gelled -- and it's a group that loves to run block. Left guard Cody O'Connell can move exceedingly well for his size and there's a reason O'Connell, a first-year starter, has shown up on three midseason All-America lists. At 6-8, 354-pounds, “The Continent” along with his fellow offensive line mates have been getting it done and, in the run game, opening up some wide lanes.
SunDevilSource: The Cougars are No. 1 in the conference at stopping the run. What's enabled that success, who are the key players on the defense, and why?
Bolton: Hate to sound like a broken record but have I mentioned the Cougars' defensive line yet?
Beyond the starters already mentioned, defensive linemen Ngalu Tapa, Garrett McBroom and rush ends Dylan Hanser and Logan Tago plus true freshman and pleasant surprise defensive end Derek Moore have played -- a lot. Salave'a has been masterful in employing pre-snap shifts, positional variety and lots of new bodies, the latter of which has not come with as much drop off as is generally the case.
You also have linebackers like Peyton Pelluer -- who are playing faster than before, due to an understanding and comfort level that only comes about through experience.
Safety/nickel Shalom Luani has also been stellar against the run and just about everywhere else. He's the glue that holds the defense together. His absence in the first two games of the season can’t be understated.
SunDevilSource: Are there any injuries of note impacting players who are or would be on the two-deep?
Bolton: Mike Leach will give out a piece of injury information the next time three feet of snow falls in Tempe.
The one thing we think we know: Tago is out as he deals with legal issues surrounding an off-field incident from June. Hanser and Tago before UCLA had truly been co-starters, each taking roughly 50 percent of the snaps through five weeks. With Tago out against the Bruins, Hanser stepped up huge with two forced fumbles. But just as telling, Hanser got more snaps, but he didn't suddenly start taking 100 percent of the turns because WSU continued to rotate liberally.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Bolton: I can make an argument for both hot and cold starts, and by both teams. WSU is catching ASU at a good time with its quarterback health issues and a pass defense that has played far worse than it's capable of. The game, on paper, shouldn't be close. Even Las Vegas favors the Cougars on the road by 7.5 points. But they rarely play out the way they do on paper, do they?
I think ASU will give WSU some trouble for a time, because the Sun Devils undeniably have plenty of Pac-12-level talent but for whatever reason the consistency hasn't been there yet in 2016. Unfortunately for Cougar fans, I think ASU finds more of that consistency against WSU. Bottom line, though: It takes a while, but the Cougars pull away. I'll say WSU 41, ASU 24.