Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Washington State beat writer Barry Bolton of Cougfan.com (Pullman, Washington) to preview the Gophers' Holiday Bowl opponent against the Cougars of Washington State.
1) Washington State started off the season on a rough patch, and ended on a two game losing streak as well, but rattled off eight straight wins in between. How would you assess the regular season for this Washington State team?
BB: WSU started out 0-2 and while the two losses were by three points each, the Cougs just didn’t look sharp in either game. Our take was the off-field issues and scrutiny at the start of the season were a distraction at best, and a destructive force at worst. During the eight-game winning streak, the Cougar defensive line, among other units, surged. The first 2 1/4 games, the Cougar d-line got stood up far too often, the defense as a whole wasn't playing to the whistle, etc. And then it was as if a switch had been flipped and the DL has found another gear, plus a supercharger during the win streak.
The last two games, the D took a step backwards and so did the offense. An 8-4 regular season record is nothing to sneeze at. It’s been a surprise, however, how Washington State has gotten there. The glass half full view in looking ahead to 2017 is that WSU went into its final regular season game with its Rose Bowl destiny in its hands, the first time that had happened since 2002.
2) It's not every day you see a quarterback in a power five conference average over 350 yards a game through the air, over three passing touchdowns and completes over 70% of his passes. How good was Cougar quarterback Luke Falk this season?
BB: He probably didn’t get the postseason recognition he deserved since the Cougs lost their last two games. And Falk will continue to be discounted by some for being a “system” QB but both the numbers and intangibles make a strong case for one of the nation’s top quarterbacks.
Falk’s reads, both pre- and post-snap, improved from last year and he showed a lot of toughness shrugging off some hard hits along the way. A quiet guy by nature, his leadership skills increased in 2016, and if they gave an award for most selfless QB he’d win it. Falk trusted his receivers to go make a play after the first two losses, and he checked to the run more than some quarterbacks would do in the same situation. At the same time, there remain plenty of things he can improve on, as the final two losses illustrated.
3) With how prolific the passing game was for Luke Falk and company, how good were his top targets of Gabe Marks, Tavares Martin and River Cracraft? All had over 50 catches and five receiving touchdowns.
BB: Marks became the all-time leading receiver in the 101-year history of the Pac-12 earlier this season. Martin is a second-year sophomore and showed a lot of flashes this season – he may be ready to follow in Marks’ footsteps next season. He has a great burst after the catch. But Cracraft merits special mention.
Cracraft has always been a consistent pass catcher over his WSU career, the guy who moves the chains on third down. He started a little slow this season but then caught fire. Many of the catches he made in the latter half were ridiculous, the kind of full-extension, toe-dragging grabs that wind up on the highlights. When he was lost for the season with an ACL tear in Week 10, it was a bigger hit than was known at the time. WSU struggled mightily in its last two games to replace Cracraft in the slot and it showed big time in both losses.
4) On defense, Washington State defenders Peyton Pelluer and Shalom Luanu played well this season, how would you asses their play, and who are some other names to lookout on defense?
BB: Pelluer has led the team in tackles two of three years from his middle linebacker spot. He’s a true lunch pail type, the kind who likes to tackle with his face. Luani was the glue that held the defense together. He’s played both safety and in the nickel spot closer to the line – solid in run support and he has a knack for interceptions.
Others to watch for include nose tackle Robert Barber, the way he eats space allows for others to scrape and make plays. The guy who could be in line for a big game is d-end Hercules Mata’afa. He’s both fast and naturally strong and can dish out sacks and tackles-for-loss in rapid fashion.
5) What are the keys for Washington State if they're going to get back on track against the Gophers, and what's your score prediction for the Washington State vs. Minnesota bowl game, and why?
BB: As good as Minnesota has shown against the run, WSU could really benefit by establishing its three running backs early both on the ground and in the receiving game. The trio of James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks have rushed for a combined 1,584 yards and 22 rushing TDs this season, numbers that were unimaginable in Mike Leach’s first four seasons at WSU. On defense, WSU needs a fast start. It’s a cliché to point to a fast start but the Cougs have gotten themselves into trouble this season on D where a slow start has turned into a slow quarter or more.
On paper, Minnesota will be without key pieces in the secondary and the off-field issues are, from this chair, likely to take a toll on the team as a whole. I expect Minnesota to come out on fire, hang tough and perhaps even be leading at halftime. As the game goes along, however, I see WSU pulling away as Falk and Co. find their footing against a tough Minnesota D and the Cougar D to do enough against the Gopher run game to get key stops.
Prediction: WSU 38, Minnesota 23.