The Battle of Palouseattle

The Cougars bring back an experienced team from 2002's Rose Bowl year, but they are breaking in a new head coach, a new quarterback and a new season against the Idaho Vandals in Seattle's Seahawks Stadium.<br> <br> (<b>NOTE:</b> Like last year, Cougzone and VandalVenue have teamed to provide guest columnist analysis of each school in the Battle...Tony Duarte, a senior editor at Cougzone, provides a complete analysis of the 2003 Cougar football team).

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You can tell by Bill Doba's face that something is getting him excited. It's likely that it could be the prospect of watching the 2003 Cougars play football, which they will do, for the second time this year, against Idaho this Saturday in Seattle's Seahawks' Stadium. Then again, he might just be excited about something one of the freshman did in practice. It's hard to tell sometimes and freshmen will be freshmen.

The Cougars' first game of 2003 was coached by a different man. A man, it turns out, that some Cougar fans and well-wishers may have never known. Mike Price was the head coach of WSU when the Cougars lost to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in January. Immediately after the game, he was the head coach of Alabama and his longtime defensive coordinator Doba was the new head coach leading the Cougars in the post-Jason Gesser era. Five months later, Price was deposed as the Tide's head coach in a high-profile scandal involving a stripper, a hotel room and a room service bill and there was Doba - still in Pullman - wondering if fifth-year-eternal-backup-quarterback Matt Kegel would have the confidence to take over where record-setting Gesser left off, occupying time as his biggest concern.

So far the answer is a convincing "maybe".

Last year, with the benefit of a pleasurable schedule, a returning array of talent including Gesser, the Cougars - for the first time ever - were the favorite to win the Pac-10 conference title. After they responded by nearly running the table in the conference and toying with the national championship game, WSU finished at the Rose Bowl with their second consecutive 10-win season at 10-3. With that in mind, the Cougars' second game of 2003 will see the debut of a new head coach and the team with the most experienced depth of any Pac-10 team, including the senior quarterback Kegel.

Matt Kegel will start the game against Idaho. There's a period at the end of that sentence because in school that's where they teach you to put one when a story ends. There is no quarterback controversy in Pullman this year. At least not yet. Now, when Kegel throws his first interception of the year, the first seed of controversy will be planted. But if that pick doesn't occur until, say, the third game of the year after eight touchdown passes have already been thrown, then it's likely that seed will never grow large enough to bear fruit.

After coming in as a highly touted Montana prep QB with strong bloodlines [Ryan Leaf's cousin], Kegel's playing time has been mostly as second fiddle to Jason Gesser for the past three years. Now, it's his turn at the wheel. Kegel has had spotty results as Gesser's backup over the years with career numbers totaling just over 1,000 yards and a 3/3 TD-to-INT ratio. He is 1-1 as the starter, both of those games coming in the 2000 season when Gesser went down with a leg injury, with the win coming against USC on the road. Last year, against Idaho, Kegel went 3-for-4 for 45 yards in backup duty to Gesser. There are great expectations around the Cougar camp that Kegel will play more confidently than he has in his past, sporadic appearances on the field. Still, until he proves consistency on the field - particularly in crucial game situations when the outcome is on the line - Kegel will be a question mark coming into the season.

Playing the role of Kegel - the backup - this year, will be Josh Swogger, Chris Hurd and Alex Brink. Redshirt sophomore Hurd and greyshirt [delayed enrollment until January] freshman Swogger were the co-#2's behind Kegel - until Hurd injured his knee and will be out indefinitely. With Hurd out for the Idaho game, Swogger is the default #2 QB and Brink, the prototypical skinny true freshman who was supposed to be slated for a redshirt season [and still might if he's not needed], has seen increased reps in practice as he tries to get up to speed.

The Cougars have a formidable one-two punch in the backfield with returning seniors Jermaine Green and Jonathon Smith. Both Green and Smith spent much of the time last year visiting the trainer's table but still accounted for 1,113 yards between them [829 for Green, 284 for Smith] in the pass-heavy one-back offensive set WSU used under former head coach Mike Price. Green's 5.5 yards per carry average is the highest of all regular Pac-10 returning starters this year and Smith was used liberally as a passing option out of the backfield last year. In last year's game however, Green - who has a history of muscle tightness problems - was mostly rested, rushing only six times for 22 yards, while Smith took on much of the load and recorded a season-high 121 yards on 12 carries. The Cougars are also expecting JC transfer running back Chris Bruhn, who recently became academically eligible, to have an immediate impact.

The offensive line was a deciding factor in last year's game as the Cougars were able to rush for 240 yards on the ground - again a season-high. But this year's Cougar O-line has a new coach in George Yarno [Vandal running back Brian Yarno's uncle], whose coaching style is decidedly more vociferous than predecessor Bob Connelly. The strength of the unit will be the three most experienced returning starters - Calvin Armstrong, Josh Parrish and Billy Knotts - along with sometime starter Sam Lightbody. Mike Shelford currently owns the starting center position but Doba expects JC transfer Keola Loo to make some noise. If that elusive characteristic - chemistry - can be achieved, the Cougars' O-line may be a team strength this year.

The tight end unit is already a strength. Returning starter Troy Bienemann could make an argument as the league's best tight end by the end of the year. Bienemann had 15 receptions for 233 yards last year, putting him at a 15.5 average per reception. Of the returning Pac-10 starters, those numerals put him behind only USC's Alex Holmes and OSU's Tim Euhus - both seniors - Bienemann will be a sophomore this year. However, Bienemann did not start against Idaho and did not catch a pass until the sixth game last year.

The Vandals' secondary should be familiar with the Cougar receivers. Redshirt junior Devard Darling - a legit all-conference candidate as well as the second-leading receiver on the team last year with 54 receptions - and senior Scott Lunde [team's fourth leading returning receiver with 30 receptions] were two of the top three receivers in the Idaho game last year. Lunde, however, may miss this year's game after suffering a rib cartilage separation. But he will likely be replaced by redshirt sophomore Trandon Harvey. Vandal fans and well-wishers may recall that name - Harvey missed last year's game with a knee injury but made three catches and scored his only career TD to date in the 2001 game against Idaho. Darling and Harvey will be complemented by senior Sammy Moore. The speedster Moore was hampered with a hammy injury for much of last year but did score a couple touchdowns - the most notable was of the special teams variety, a kickoff return against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. After that main group, there is a knot of talent waiting to break out in freshman Jason Hill and redshirt freshman Chris Jordan, especially, who are expected to shine in their first year of live ball.

On defense, the first, most glaring difference in this year's game against Idaho will be the absence of linebacker Kevin Sperry. Sperry was the leading tackler in the game last year and was due to return for his senior season until suffering a career-ending knee injury earlier in the year. That created a quandary at the middle linebacker spot - where senior Donnie Jackson will be - if his hammy allows. If the hammy gets all uppity on him, then redshirt freshman Scott Davis appears to be next in line for the throne - although senior Al Genatone could also move there if necessary. Aaron Wagner [who returned from a Mormon mission] could also see some time at the spot. If push comes to shove and the coaches are not happy with the MLB play, there is the possibility of going to a five down lineman package. The Cougars are set at outside linebackers with Will Derting [the leading returning tackler among linebackers] and Genatone [if he's not playing middle]. Genatone's backup - junior Pat Bennett - is injured and questionable for the game, so Davis may play there.

The five-lineman package is a possibility because WSU is neck-and-neck with USC for having the best and most experienced defensive line unit returning in the Pac-10 in 2003. The Cougars lost Outland Trophy winner Rien Long prematurely to the NFL or they would have unquestionably had the best defensive line in the conference. Even with Long gone, the Cougars have six of their top eight players from last year returning - and all with either starting or significant game experience. Redshirt senior Jeremey Williams leads the returnees with 47 tackles and 7 TFL's [tackles for loss] and he is joined in the interior by fellow senior Tai Tupai - a 19-game starter. Twin sack masters redshirt senior Isaac Brown and senior D.D. Acholonu - who were responsible for 14.5 sacks last year - both return. After that core group, there are another group which saw significant playing time in Adam Braidwood, Steve Cook and Josh Shavies, the converted tight end with the resurgent career. Braidwood and Cook are the most promising - they had 34 tackles and five sacks between them. The Cougars had six sacks in last year's game - three by Long and one by departed Fred Shavies - with Williams and Brown snagging the other two.

The defensive secondary is where the Cougars will be challenged the most - particularly with Idaho's short passing game. The Cougars lost defensive secondary coach Chris Ball and the best corner in the league last year in Marcus Trufant [now with the Seahawks]. Ball was replaced by Purdue's Ken Greene, a former Cougar, so they should not miss a beat there but Trufant is simply irreplaceable and Karl Paymah will need to play his best at all times to match the play of the conference's leading interceptor - Jason David. The Cougars do get a break in returning their defensive quarterback - senior free safety Erik Coleman - who was the team's leading tackler [86] last year. They also get redshirt senior Virgil Williams, who won his medical hardship appeal, at strong safety for another year. But after that top four, the Cougars are fairly thin on healthy players with significant playing experience. Both David and Paymah did play last year - but only Trufant was able to get a pick.

Special teams could be the best unit in the Pac-10 this year as the Cougars return the conference's top returners in Moore and Coleman, third-best [according to average] punter in Kyle Basler and fourth-best kicker [according to percentage] Drew Dunning. Dunning attempted no field goals last year against Idaho, but Basler booted five punts at a 43-yard average.

As with last year's game, the result should be determined at the line of scrimmage. Who controls the line of scrimmage should win the game. Offensively, the Cougars will not veer too far away from the same one-back offensive play set they've always used, yet they will try, under Doba, to establish a ball-control running game. But even when passing, Kegel has some running ability and, if forced to scramble, is expected to be more durable than Gesser. Defensively, the Cougars will certainly look to defend the short passing game and rattle new starting quarterback Harrington although that might not necessarily be in the form of additional blitzing.

Doba has repeatedly stressed that the Cougars are not looking ahead to Notre Dame the following week and he makes a believable case as far as the media is concerned. There are still some members of this Cougar team that were part of the teams that were beaten by the Vandals in 1999 and 2000, so if the team is unconvinced by Doba's assertions, it's likely these team members will remind them with a history lesson.

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