Four Letter Words

It has been four long years since the last time Idaho defeated WSU on the football field. Yet ask any Cougar player who was there at the time – and there are eight of them still in Pullman – and they will tell you that they are elephants and do not forget that day. Either that or they may develop a sudden onset of acute amnesia.

Sure, the programs have gone in decidedly different directions since then but there is no question – particularly in light of Wazzu's pass-catching performance last weekend against Colorado – that anything can most assuredly happen on any college football field on any Saturday afternoon in autumn.

The Cougars were expected to come into this latest Battle of the Palouse as the heavy favorite and they are. However, they are not nearly the same overpowering team they were last season when they handed the Vandals their only shutout of the season. It may not seem like the biggest game of the year, but after last Saturday's performance. This game can potentially mark a critically important juncture for the future of the WSU football program. There are questions popping up everywhere for the Cougars after a road win in New Mexico and a loss to Colorado in Seattle. The most glaring are located on the offensive side of the ball where the Cougars are running the ball at a 23-yard-per-game clip and Cougar receivers are dropping balls left, right and middle. To say that Wazzu is not hitting all cylinders would be akin to saying Michael Jackson has legal problems.

Whereas the running problem is a work-in-progress attributed to linemen adapting to offensive line coach George Yarno's system, the pass-catching abilities of the Cougar receivers may be a passing anomaly. Both WSU quarterbacks who played against Colorado last week – redshirt sophomore Josh Swogger and redshirt freshman Alex Brink – had receivers drop multiple passes. The balls were there in time but the passes were dropped. Of course, some of the passes were not always there and that is why both quarterbacks played. It is early in the season and head coach Bill Doba has awakened to his worst nightmare – a quarterback controversy. Whichever quarterback starts against Idaho won't likely matter since it is almost assured that both will play significant chunks of the game. Swogger is the taller, thicker, more experienced, rocket-armed but less mobile quarterback while Brink is the skinnier, less experienced, more mobile quarterback with less rocket fuel in the arm socket. Both have their positives, both have their negatives and the Cougar coaching staff will certainly use them both during Idaho game hoping to get some consistency out of one or both with the first Pac-10 conference game – on the road no less - slightly over one week away.

Defensively, the Cougars improved greatly from week one to week two. In the first game against New Mexico on the road, the Cougars allowed Lobo running back DonTrell Moore to run wild on them – to the tune of nearly 200 yards - with the option attack. Still, Doba was happy with the performance because the youthful team was not overpowered but was merely committing correctable assignment errors. That was borne out last week against Colorado when the Buffaloes' top rusher, Bobby Purify, fresh off a big game against intra-state rival Colorado State – was held in check by the Cougar defense. Purify was shut down to 53 yards on 23 carries and WSU held Colorado's entire offensive unit to only 125 yards. Meanwhile, the Cougar pass defense, which was inconsistent against New Mexico, held the Buffaloes to only 78 yards passing. Although there are a few notable senior performers on the defense – linebacker Will Derting and safety Hamza Abdullah stand out – much of the defense is not the same one that shut out the Vandals last year but is beginning to play toward that level.

What has been most frustratingly inconsistent for the Cougars that wasn't last year when the two teams met is special teams play. In fact, last year the Cougars got four field goals from then-senior Drew Dunning in their game against Idaho while punter Kyle Basler punted only three times for a 47-yard average. Last week against Colorado, the Cougars' freshman kicker missed two field goals from the very makeable distances of 26 and 40 yards out while Basler suffered a partially blocked punt and a fully blocked punt for a touchdown. All of last year, Basler had only one punt blocked. On the other hand, junior Graham Siderius' kickoffs were frequently sent deep into the end zone and the Cougars did block one Colorado field goal attempt. But they also allowed one crucial late-game kickoff return and were guilty of contacting the punter on occasion.

The Cougars are 1-1 entering the game but could very easily be 0-2 or 2-0. There is nothing about this team which screams consistency – yet - and that is the sign of the youth which is prevalent throughout the roster and listed starters. Mentally, because the Cougars' recent success has created an atmosphere of high expectations and because last week's mistakes were a matter of proper execution rather than lack of or absence of physical prowess, they will come into this game carrying little or no baggage from the loss to Colorado. But execution – especially from offensive and special teams units - remains to be seen on a consistent basis and inconsistency in those areas are capable of bringing back four-year old nightmares for some of the Cougar seniors.




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