With Arizona hosting Washington State on Saturday, Wildcat Authority caught up with Barry Bolton of CougFan.com and asked him some questions about the Cougars:
Wildcat Authority: Mike Leach's offenses have been notorious for airing it out, but it seems that the Cougar offense has leaned on the running game a little more this season. What has prompted this change in philosophy?
Barry Bolton: Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow got their first collegiate playing time last season as second-year freshmen and the old adage has held true – the most improvement seen is between the first and second seasons.
Wicks and Morrow are both gaining the edge quicker than in ’14 and have far more confidence with the ball in their hands, both via the ground and the pass.
Second-year freshman Keith Harrington being added to the mix has provided even more diversity -- slippery and quick, though he is going through a learning phase just as Wicks and Morrow did.
WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro has done a bang up job in developing all three young ‘backs and the bonus is that it makes the WSU passing game that more difficult to defend. WSU has been better at finishing off drives this season and much of that can be credited to the running backs and the offensive line.
WA: Washington State opened the season with a loss to Portland State and it looked like it may be a rocky season. To the Cougars credit, they seem to have turned it around and have won some big games over the last few weeks. What would you say changed for the team after that first weekend?
BB: It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing but you can start with the Cougar players having focused in better and the coaches getting them to relax and just play their game.
There’s more work remaining, the Cougs have yet to “play all four quarters” in a game and they’re prone to lapses, specifically on defense on special teams.
But the offense has started to really roll of late and when that happens, wins follow. The o-line has looked mostly solid and against Rutgers and Oregon State, really shined brightly.
WA: While Arizona has statistically one of the best rushing attacks in the country, Washington State has statistically one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. What do the Cougars need to do in order to slow down the Wildcats running game?
BB: Wrap up better.
Arizona is going to gain a lot of rushing yards. Washington State’s defense has given no indication they will be able to stop one of the better running attacks around, but WSU is capable of limiting the damage, as they did against Cal.
The Cougs must do a more consistent job up front on defense in shedding OL blocks at Arizona, getting penetration and plugging holes, allowing the linebackers and nickel to make the sure-handed stop. The Cougs, though they did better at it all this last Saturday, have been poor at times wrapping up and playing all the way through the whistle -- doing so on Saturday will cost them dearly against Arizona’s running game.
When WSU has a chance to get off the field on third down, they have to take full advantage and get the ball back to their strength – the offense. Inconsistency in this area for the first three quarters could haunt WSU in the fourth stanza.
The WSU defensive staff has players in the right spots, but they have to better execute and play sound fundamental football. They have yet to do that for four quarters and Arizona’s run game is capable of going all the way on any one play.
A takeaway or three at key times would be big for WSU.
WA: Rich Rodriguez announced that he may go with either Anu Solomon or Jerrard Randall this weekend. How does Washington State's defense have to adjust for the two different offensive looks?
BB: Hard to predict but for both, the general answer is to stay at home and concentrate on stopping the run.
WSU earlier this season was over pursuing and not staying with their assignments, which led to giving up huge chunks of yardage. They’re still prone to that, but they’ve decreased the number of mental errors by a good margin.
Solomon is a more dangerous passer than he’s getting credit for of late and Randall is a prolific runner, but WSU’s priority figures to be to stop the run, no matter who is the QB.
The ideal scenario is for WSU to try and force Solomon to beat them on the ground, and Randall to beat them through the air, but that’s not an easy scheme to employ and perfect in just a practice week’s time.
WA: What are the keys to the game for Washington State and what is your prediction for Saturday?
BB: The WSU offense needs to be at their level best because the WSU defense and special teams, on paper, look to have their work cut out for them against Arizona. Quarterback Luke Falk and the Cougar offense probably need to score early and often to come away with a win.
Two big keys on offense will be how well Falk does against Arizona’s nickel coverage and how many all-purpose yards the three running backs can rack up. The offensive line is coming off a confidence builder over Oregon State and should be able to give Falk time and open enough holes to keep the Cougar offense humming.
Washington State’s special teams have struggled and WSU needs to ensure the game doesn’t turn on an allowed return or punt block.
CougFan.Com Analyst Matt Moore sees the Cougar doing just enough on offense to tip the game in their favor with WSU winning a nail-biter, 43-40.