Obviously no one could have predicted this Saturday's game at Folsom Field would feature the top team in the Pac-12 North and the top team in the South... what were the keys in Washington State rebounding from an 0-2 start to win eight straight?
Barry Bolton: "How much time do you have? There are a number of factors but we’ll limit it to two of the bigger ones. The off-field issues and scrutiny, which has since subsided to more manageable levels, were a distraction at best, a destructive force at worst. Second, the Cougar defensive line has affected one of the biggest in-season turnarounds you’ll see. The first 2 1/4 games, the Cougar d-line got stood up far too often, and the defense as a whole wasn't playing to the whistle, and on and on. Since then, the DL has found another gear ... plus a supercharger. Maybe it took a little while to get into the flow, with DL coach Joe Salave'a using such a heavy rotation and moving guys around to different spots in replacing ’15 senior starters and talent. Whatever it is, this is shaping up as Salave'a best coaching job ever at WSU. And credit to starters DE Hercules Mata'afa, NT Robert Barber/Ngalu Tapa, DE Daniel Ekuale plus many other key rotational players."
Do Luke Falk and Gabe Marks comprise the best pass-catch duo in Wazzu history?
"That is a tough question. As far as the numbers go, they can't be touched. It's hugely difficult to compare different eras, and speaking only for myself, I would have to frame it this way: Ryan Leaf had the Fab Five, but not one WR. Drew Bledsoe had a similar array in C.J. Davis, Deron Pointer and Phillip Bobo, but not one WR. Jason Gesser had Nakoa McElrath, Jerome Riley, Mike Bush, Devard Darling ... but not one WR. The closest is probably Jack Thompson and Mike Levenseller (though Brian Kelly was in there too). Those three are probably the closest in comparison to Falk/Mark/Cracraft. Because you have to include Cracraft. No other receiving teammate tandem in the 101-year history of the Pac-12 has 200-plus catches."
Your staff broke the news that River Cracraft, the second leading pass catcher in Washington State history, is out for the remainder of the season due to a torn ACL. How big of a hit is that to the Cougars' passing attack?
"It's a big hit. Cracraft has an elevated ability to find the soft spots in the zone in the scheme of the WSU offense, and he has from Day One. He's also been making a bunch of ridiculous catches the past several weeks, as good as anyone in college football. Luke Falk trusts him to make the difficult catches that another receiver might lose the battle on. And Cracraft over his career has been the guy with great hands who moved the chains on third-and-gotta-have-it. He's not a guy you replace with two games left. That said, it is next man up. Mike Leach since the day he arrived on the Palouse has emphasized the need to be ready to step in at a moment's notice, for any reason, and perform. It's been drilled into the players and has become a part of the culture. WSU's receiving corps needs to raise its game both on the inside and outside. Same thing with the offensive line. And the running backs. And at quarterback. It’s a tall task. But it’s something they simply have to do."
Washington State's defense is ranked No. 6 in the Pac-12 in points allowed, an improvement from recent years ... what are the Cougars' strengths, and who are their top playmakers, on that side of the ball?
"The defensive line/front seven is the strength. The Cougs are tops in the conference against the run, and No. 19 nationally. Possibly more telling -- WSU's D isn't necessarily a blitz-happy team and certainly not like, say, an ASU. But WSU is still third in the conference in tackles-for-loss with 61. Mata'afa was the early season star until teams began double teaming him. Since then, he still makes the ‘wow’ plays, but the extra attention has meant there will naturally be fewer. Ekuale doesn’t get the big stats -- no d-tackle type does. But he has been huge in the second half of the season in allowing his teammates to make the tackle. MIKE Peyton Pelluer is solid and WILs Frankie Luvu and Isaac Dotson are athletic and hard-hitting. Corners Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins have had plenty of good moments, and they've also been fortunate other times that the defensive pressure on the QB has been there. But the guy on D to really watch is nickel/safety Shalom Luani. The senior is the glue that holds the defense together, and his absence earlier this year was keenly felt. Luani is the full package, and he will surely have figured prominently into Colorado's offensive game plan."
In addition to Cracraft, do the Cougars have any injuries of note?
"Mike Leach will give out a piece of injury information about the same time CU decides to replace Ralphie the Buffalo with a 3-toed sloth named Merv. Leach not only won’t answer questions about injuries, he doesn't acknowledge their existence. His reasoning, in part, goes to the next man up mindset from earlier and for there to be no excuses for not performing well and working hard. As far as we know, apart from Cracraft and to paraphrase the WSU head man, everyone is good to go and Mike Leach couldn’t be happier with them and their physical condition."
Lastly, how do you Saturday's game shaking out and what is your score prediction?
"I can see a few different scenarios playing out, almost all involve a close game. Colorado will be the best defense, and the best team, WSU has yet faced. The Cougs have this going for them: they're coming into Boulder playing their best football, having put together two straight games where they played a complete game, in all three phases. I see it taking WSU and Falk a while to, if not solve, at least gain enough traction vs. the Colorado D. The Cougar defense will give up some explosion plays against a dangerous CU offense, but have enough other positive plays to provide a counter balance. In the end, I see Wazzu gaining some breathing room and pulling off the upset, winning 38-27."