Q&A: Air Cougs

Managing editor Barry Bolton of Cougfan.com joins BT to talk in-depth about Cal's homecoming match-up with Washington State on Saturday.

BearTerritory: Washington State head coach Mike Leach said in his Tuesday presser that junior quarterback Connor Halliday will be a full go on Saturday against California after taking a bone-rattling hit from Stanford's Trent Murphy in the second half of last week's game. Have you seen any kind of shaken confidence or other residual effects from the hit, and how will the memory of that affect what he's able to do?

Barry Bolton: Halliday in both Sunday and Tuesday's practices showed no residual effect and it's not really a surprise. Over four years in Pullman a clear picture of Halliday has emerged – a confident, risk-taking, mentally tough Pac-12 quarterback. He's also fought through injuries -- take the Utah game in 2011, where Halliday suffered a lacerated liver in the second quarter but somehow went on to play the rest of the game. That's the most well-known example but there have been plenty of other times where Halliday has gutted his way through adversity.

BT: The Air Raid offense seems to have really taken hold up in Pullman after some hiccups in the first year of Leach's tenure, with the Cougs ranking fifth in the conference in passing offense and Halliday completing 66.4 percent of his passes – the second-highest rate in the conference. What's been the biggest fundamental improvement you've seen from last year to this year?

BB: The two areas that have most improved are better pass protection from the offensive line and a WR corps that is stacked very deep in 2013. That said, the Air Raid has not put up the points, either this year or last, that most observers had expected. There have been a ton of yards, a whole lot of passing yards, and WSU has moved the ball very well – but only to a point. They've been unable to push it into end zone enough in comparison to all those hashes. The Air Raid in 2013 has improved over last year, no close observer of the WSU program would say otherwise. But in the statistic that matters most, the points put up on the scoreboard, it's worth pointing out that against the three top opponents to date this season -- Stanford, USC and Auburn -- the Cougar offense has scored an average of 14.6 ppg, with a total of just five touchdowns in those three contests.

BT: Washington State has the No. 33 passer efficiency defense in the nation, the fourth-best total defense in the Pac-12 and the second-best passing defense in the league. Has that been more a function of the teams – and styles of offense – they've played, or is the Cougar secondary the real deal? If so, what makes them so tough to throw against?

BB: While the level of competition will always figure heavily into the first half of a season's statistics, the overall defensive improvement is the primary reason, the Stanford loss notwithstanding. The 2013 Cougar defense is faster, they're getting more pressure and penetration and they're wrapping up better when compared to last year. The players are also much more comfortable in Mike Breske's 3-4 now that they have some experience under their collective belts. As for the Cougar secondary, they're better though there's certainly still room for improvement. They've also benefitted substantially from the pressure the front seven have provided. The bell cow here is safety Deone Bucannon, he's played exceptionally and is a near lock to play on Sundays next season. The rest of the defensive backfield had mostly looked solid – Damante Horton before last Saturday had been outstanding and true freshman Daquawn Brown looks like the real deal -- but the Stanford game proved a wake-up call for all save for Bucannon. This matchup against Cal will be critical for that unit if they're to return to more solid footing.

BT: As can be expected given the fact that Sonny Dykes and Leach come from the same coaching tree, the Bears and Cougars have gone for it on fourth down more than the rest of the conference (10 and 11 times, respectively). Washington State has the best conversion rate on fourth down (70%) in the Pac-12. What types of play calls could we see from Leach when he rolls the dice?

BB: That's like trying to predict what the weather will be like on a day a month from now. There was a fourth down play in the one game where WSU ran a reverse on fourth down – and to the short side of the field. Run, pass, sneak, flea-flicker double lindy with a twist… your guess is as good as ours.

BT: How much confidence did the win over then-No. 25 USC give the Cougars?

BB: It certainly gave them some confidence but Leach has preached one game at a time, and then move on to the next game, and the players have clearly adopted that as their mantra. But going on the road against a ranked team, and beating a team that WSU has had precious little success against over the years, it certainly didn't hurt their confidence level.

BT: Cal has had a very difficult time getting the run game going through the first four games, and Washington State's linebackers don't look like they're going to make things easy. With Darryl Monroe (36), Justin Sagote (31) and Cyrus Coen (30) all ranking among the top 10 in the conference in tackles, is that a function of the defensive line not locking things down up front, or is this a unit that is truly on the rise?

BB: We'd opine that the Cougar defensive front, and we're including BUCK linebacker Destiny Vaeao and his backup Kache Palacio here, has enjoyed considerable success occupying blockers and not letting them get to the second level and crunched the pocket to the degree that it's freed up the Cougar linebackers to swoop in and make the tackles. The front -- nose tackle Ioane Gauta along with ends Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper, plus Vaeao, average 295 pounds and they cover a lot more ground than most can at that size. As for the three other linebackers, Monroe, only a sophomore, has really emerged this season. Sagote and Coen don't get as much of the limelight but they've both stood out to close observers this season. Another linebacker to keep an eye on is backup Tana Pritchard.

BT: The always-overlooked third phase of the game – special teams – looks like it could be quite a battle on Saturday, with the Cougars' kickoff and punt return teams showing up very well so far in 2013, each ranking fourth in the Pac-12. What kind of weapons does Washington State have in the return game?

BB: Leon Brooks is the primary punt returner with Brett Bartolone backing him up. Brooks is dependable, and has seemed close at times to breaking a few. The two kickoff return men are Teondray Caldwell and Rickey Galvin. Both have been solid if unspectacular, especially Caldwell. The biggest special teams drama through five games has been at punter, where Mike Bowlin has struggled of late with distance and consistency.

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