Washington State will be led by first-year head coach Bill Doba. Gone are star quarterback Jason Gesser, defensive back and first-round pick Marcus Trufant and Outland Trophy winner Rein Long. They do return a solid nucleus of talent and speed on both offense and defense.
The Cougars will be led by quarterback Matt Kegel on offense. This is Kegel's first year in the starting role for Washington State and some have questioned his ability. The truth is nobody really knows how he will react in a big game because he hasn't had much experience in big games or any games for that matter. He was 12-21 for 108 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception in his first game against Idaho—not the Jason Gesser-type numbers expected by Washington State fans.
Washington State had an impressive 331 rushing yards against Idaho led by Jonathan Smith (160 yards) and Chris Bruhn (118 yards). This was the same Idaho defense that was ranked 110th in the nation in total defense and 96th in rush defense in 2002. Probably more important, the Cougars were in the red-zone five times and only scored two touchdowns versus an undermanned Idaho defense.
The three players to worry about in the passing game are wide receiver Devard Darling and tight ends Troy Bienemann and Cody Boyd. Darling is a big receiver (6-3, 205) and very fast. Bienemann is only a sophomore but caught three balls for 30 yards in the first game—not that impressive but we will explain later. Boyd is 6-8 and an inviting target.
On defense, the Cougars are a little undersized but very fast. They will use their speed to try to disrupt the Irish offensive attack. We fully expect them to load eight men in the box and force Notre Dame to beat them through the air.
This game will feature two very good defenses matched up against two offenses trying to find themselves. Washington State's offense has the advantage of playing a game and that experience will help them tremendously. Notre Dame's offense will have the element of surprise and that is also an advantage.
What to Expect: Washington State offense versus Irish Defense
Washington State could decide to try to establish the run early on. If they don't need to use Kegel's arm there is no reason to put him in a bad position. They had good success running the football against Idaho and probably feel very good about that performance. Establishing the run is the safe game plan with an inexperienced quarterback but we are not sold that the Cougars will focus mainly on the run early in the game.
It was clearly obvious last year that the key to attacking the Irish defense was to spread them out vertically and horizontally with the passing game. Kegel certainly isn't Carson Palmer or Phillip Rivers at this stage in his career so we doubt we will see the high-flying offense we saw from USC and North Carolina State.
We fully expect Washington State will use both tight ends and their running backs in the passing game early and also mix in the run. They will try to test the Irish secondary deep early to push the Irish secondary off the line of scrimmage and we expect to see a lot of balls thrown into the flat and in the middle of the field to their tight ends and their backs. We feel that with Kegel's lack of experience, they will try to give him easy options and safe throws.
The key to protecting any inexperienced quarterback is to not put him into a position where he feels he needs to make a play. Kent Baer's job is to make Kegel feel he needs to make decisions and plays the entire game. If Baer can do that, the Irish should win this game.
Irish offense versus the Cougar defense
Did you know that Washington State was the 8th-ranked defense against the run in 2002 allowing just 87 yards per game? We know that most teams don't run the football well in the Pac 10 so that stat might be inflated a little bit but they held USC to 52 net rushing yards last year. Ohio State did rush for 292 yards early in the year and Oklahoma had 146 in their final game of the year but this is a good defense against the run.
How will the Irish attack? Unfortunately the only way to have success against a good run defense is to loosen them up with the pass. The Irish have the talent at wide receiver, tight end and running back to attack the Washington State defense but they will have to execute. One way to control a speedy defense is to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands long before the pass rush can get to the quarterback—ala Carson Palmer versus the Irish defense last year.
Another way for the Irish offense to counter a very fast defense (especially the inside blitz and outside rush) is to roll Holiday out of the pocket. Holiday is pretty accurate throwing on the run and defenses have to freeze when Holiday is on the outside in open space. Holiday has always been a threat with his legs and defenses have to respect that or he will make them pay with his legs.
Expect the Irish offense to spread the field early and often. It would not surprise us if the Irish opened the game with three or four passes or more before they went to the run. Short, quick passes to wide receivers on the outside, backs in the flat, tight ends over the middle and Holiday on the run should do the trick—easier said than done.
If the Irish can spread out the Cougar defense, their horses up front should be able to pound the ball inside later in the game. The Irish offensive line has the size and strength to pound the ball against an undersized Cougar defense inside but as a 5th-year senior with two years starting experience along the offensive line once told us—"you can't block eight with six." (Sean Milligan)--It would be futile to even try early.
The Irish offense will have to prove to Washington State—and probably every opponent in the near future—that you can't cheat with eight men in the box on defense and not pay for it. Until the Irish offense can make teams pay for cheating by moving their safeties up, they will struggle on offense.
Washington State defense versus the Irish offense.
This game will be much the same as every game last year. We fully expect the Washington State defense to blitz and blitz often. They will try to confuse Holiday and force him to make decisions before he wants to. They will cheat their safeties up to linebacker depth and they will also cheat their corners up to line of scrimmage and play to stop the run on first and second down. They will want to put the Irish in third and long situations where they can pin their ears back and overwhelm Holiday with defenders.
Who remembers our favorite blitz last year? Defensive tackle takes an outside move, the defensive end slants inside and then the linebacker or safety follows the defensive end inside isolated on a running back. The Irish offense rarely solved this blitz last year and expect if often in this game until they can prove they can pick up this blitz. Every team the Irish face will try to isolate a linebacker or safety on an Irish running back in pass protection until the backs can prove they can pick up the blitz. The offensive line took the brunt of criticism last year when the backs should've shared in at least some of the blame.
The Cougar defense will come after Holiday all game. They will blitz linebackers and safeties on obvious running downs because they are not afraid of giving up a big play in the area vacated by the blitzing player. Holiday and offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick will have to prove to Washington State and every defense they face this year that they will make you pay for blitzing. Until the Irish offense and Diedrick can make teams fear the passing game, you will see much the same as last year—and why we think Notre Dame comes out throwing the football.
Cougar offense versus Irish defense
This is the real key to the game in our mind. The Irish must stop the run and force the Cougars to give up all attempts to even try. Put the game in the hands of an inexperienced quarterback and make him make decisions and plays.
The Irish defense will have to load up on the run early while still keeping an eye on the flat and the middle of the field. We don't feel Washington State will have much success going deep against the Irish defense although they certainly have the speed to do so at the wide receiver position.
If the Irish can stop the run, this game should be in the bag. The key to this game is making Kegel make plays. If the Irish put the game in Kegel's hands, we doubt he can beat or challenge the Irish defense—no disrespect to him, inexperienced quarterbacks will almost always struggle against a good defense.
Washington State will try to do the exact same thing against Holiday. Holiday has the starting experience and has shined in games more important in the bigger picture than this game so we know he has the mental toughness and the experience to make the necessary plays.
We think both teams are pretty even in talent. The Irish will win the game because Holiday is the more experienced quarterback and the Irish are playing at home. Notre Dame 20 Washington State 13