HIGH ANXIETY

This look at the Cougar football team is provided by <b>Tony Duarte</b>, one of the writers/editors/administrators at CougZone.com. Many thanks to Tony for this contribution, and for a glimpse into the team that many publications are calling the pre-season PAC-10 favorite. Our neighbors to the West have certainly come a long way in the last 2 years.

History has dictated that season openers are usually a pleasant experience for the WSU football team in the last 14 years, but last year's season opening game between Idaho and Wazzu was a slow starting affair from the Cougar perspective - a 26-yard field goal was all the Cougars had to show for the first quarter. The Cougars racked up 15 [!] penalties in the game and never really rolled smoothly even though the final score was a deceptive 36-7. It could have been much worse or it could have been closer - either way, it created some anxiety where a boatload had already existed before.

Fast forward to the 2002 season opener for the Cougs and you'll be singing deja vu before you even knew you had a singing voice. In a season of high expectations, the Cougars debuted their top 15-ranked team before a festive atmosphere in the first collegiate game ever played in Seahawks Stadium last week and promptly underwhelmed the Nevada Wolf Pack, coached by former Vandal head coach Chris Tormey. When Tormey was at Idaho, he made a regular habit of tormenting Cougar head coach Mike Price. Always outmanned, Tormey nevertheless put a scare into Price's 1998 squad - only losing by eight points - and then, in 1999, nearly got Price canned when a Mao Tosi pummeling of Cougar QB Steve Birnbaum turned the game around and the Vandals were able to record their first victory over the Cougs in 30+ years.


Elaine Thompson / AP
Heisman hopeful, QB Jason Gesser.
This year - just as last year - the Cougs opened unimpressively, slogging their way through the Wolf Pack until the game was finally put out of reach in the fourth quarter. Heisman Trophy candidate Jason Gesser was mostly average in compiling 242 yards passing with one touchdown and the Cougars' run-blocking - even though not an acknowledged strength - was less than inspiring as JC transfer Jonathon Smith had to gain most of his yards on his own effort. New JC transfer running back Jermaine Green only had a few second-half carries as Price looked to rest his ailing knee. Pass-blocking, on the other hand was generally good - Gesser was not allowed to be sacked on the day and was hurried only a few occasions. Returning receivers Collin Henderson and Trandon Harvey had decent outings [although Harvey twisted a knee and will be out for the game] but Mike Bush was a subpar. New Florida State transfer Devard Darling, in what is perhaps a sign of the future, led the team in receptions while returning starter Jerome Riley led in yardage.

The Cougars' defensive line is being touted as the best in the conference but a patchwork Nevada offensive line that had lost two of their starters and additionally was starting a converted defensive lineman from last year was able to hold off the Cougar pass rush for the majority of the game - allowing only three sacks total. That was partly achieved by rolling out Nevada quarterback to give him precious extra seconds of time which he used to quickly release the ball whenever a Cougar defensive player was within two yards of him. The rolling pocket - introduced by Nevada offensive coordinator and former WSU assistant Phil Earley - probably saved the Wolf Pack from another four or five sacks on the day. The defensive line - featuring a rotation of eight players - was able to shut down the last season's NCAA-leading rusher Chance Kretschmer to 67 yards on 26 carries. Last year against Idaho, Blair Lewis was able to rack up 50 yards on a mere seven carries - albeit late in the game, but a sore spot nonetheless for the Cougar D. The Cougar linebackers were active but nobody was more active than red shirt freshman Will Derting from Okanogan. Derting injured a knee while playing on special teams in the Idaho game last year and had to miss the season. This year, Derting was one of the six linebackers being rotated in the game and he came up big with three picks, including a 98-yarder returned for a touchdown that was a school record. The Cougar secondary, which lost the all-time Pac-10 interception leader was suspect in the first quarter against Nevada when Wolf Pack receiver Nate Burleson had his biggest effect. But after all-Pac-10 corner Marcus Trufant was shifted to cover Burleson, he was shut down for the remainder of the game.

Special teams was an area of peaks and valleys for the Cougs last week. While new punter Kyle Basler performed well as expected, placekicker Drew Dunning unexpectedly performed poorly - missing a chip shot 31-yarder and a nearly straight on 46-yarder as well as fumbling a fake field goal attempt. Kickoff specialist Adam Holiday - who was given a scholarship to kick footballs into the end zone - had a hip flexor and was only able to get his opening kickoff into the end zone. But new JC transfer kick returner Sammy Moore made an immediate impact, breaking one long kickoff return.


Elaine Thompson / AP
Running back recruit Jonanthan Smith.
Aside from standout individual performances from Derting, Darling, Smith and Riley, it was a mediocre outing for the majority of the team last week in Seattle. Last year against Idaho, WSU did not have the best game of the year but still tallied 544 yards of offense while holding the short passing control game of QB John Welsh to only 72 yards. With new QB Brian Lindgren running the show, it perhaps might not be realistic for the Cougs to hold Idaho to such marks this year - especially with a veteran offensive line - but with only one receiver [Harvey] out of the Cougar offense and the defense having already seen a rolling pocket tactic used by the opposition, it may just be a matter of time before things begin clicking on both sides of the Cougar ball and produce a result similar to 2001. However, if the Cougs' first half effort against Nevada is contagious, there could be some frayed nerves in Pullman on Saturday.




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