Question: After losing to Eastern Washington and then losing a close one to Boise State, the Cougars have won out. What has been the biggest change in the turnaround?
Barry Bolton: Two reasons. 1) The off-field issues and scrutiny, which have since subsided to more manageable levels, were a distraction at best and a destructive force at worst. As much as everyone tries to go into a cocoon and not focus on it, it's always there. 2) The Cougar defensive line has affected one of the biggest turnarounds you’ll see in a short period of time. The first 2 1/4 games, the Cougar d-line got stood up and wasn't always effective. The defense as a whole wasn't playing to the whistle. And on and on. The last 4 3/4 games, the DL has found another gear plus a supercharger.
Maybe it took a little while to get into the flow, with DL coach Joe Salave'a using such a heavy rotation and moving guys around to different spots in replacing ’15 senior starters and talent. But whatever it is, this is shaping up as Salave'a best coaching job to date at WSU. And credit to starters DE Hercules Mata'afa, NT *Robert Barber*, DE Daniel Ekuale and many others. Today’s DL, and the defense in general, doesn't at all resemble the version of Weeks 1-2. (More on Barber in Question No. 3).
Question: What playmakers on offense should Beaver fans be aware of?
BB: QB Luke Falk is of course the star of the WSU offense. His numbers are impressive (253 of 348 passes for 2,511 yards, 19TDs vs. 5 INT) but his command of the offense is what stands out most this season for the fourth-year junior.
Slot man River Cracraft, the Y receiver in Mike Leach's Air Raid, has made a bunch of difficult catches look easy. Gabe Marks, the Z on the outside, is the bell cow and should soon become the all-time leading receiver in Pac-12 history. The other outside wideout, Tavares Martin, had Leach recently saying Martin is playing the best of any Cougar wide receiver.
WSU has a three-headed monster at running back. The Cougs didn't even try to run at ASU (7 combined carries by the backs) but the combination of Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams have helped WSU average 100-plus ground yards per game. Any of the three is capable of starring moments via the run or in the receiving game.
Question: Who are the playmakers on defense we should be on the lookout for?
BB: Barber, as of Wednesday night, looks to be out for Saturday. While WSU has a lot of rotational DL depth, losing the fifth-year senior nose tackle is a big blow to the Cougs. I expect Oregon State to try and come right after WSU and at the man who figures to be his primary replacement, Ngalu Tapa, a big guy who has played well in spurts and moves quicker than you'd think.
DE Hercules Mata'afa has been the pass rushing star until last week, when he had a quiet night in the box score. MIKE Peyton Pelluer is solid and WILs Isaac Dotson and Frankie Luvu are athletic and hard-hitting. Corners Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins have had plenty of good moments, and they've been fortunate other times that the defensive pressure on the QB has been there.
But the guy on D to really watch is nickel/safety Shalom Luani. The senior is the glue that holds the defense together and his absence earlier this year was keenly felt. Luani is the entire package, and he will surely figure prominently into Oregon State's offensive game plan.
Question: What is the injury report heading into Saturday’s match-up? Is Falk 100%?
BB: Mike Leach will give out a piece of injury information the next time Corvallis holds “Duck Fan Appreciation Day."
What we think we know: Falk has looked sharp in practice this week.
Question: What can the Beavers do in order to help their chances on Saturday?
BB: What's the old football adage when it comes to winning on D: Gotta take something away. Given OSU has a salty pass defense, and Pac-12 opponents are rushing for 200 yards against the Beavs, I imagine Gary Andersen will have his D selling out to stop the WSU run and make Falk beat them through the air. And if OSU gains a little steam and confidence, this once could get really interesting really fast.
Oregon State is better than its record. They can hang with anyone in limited spurts, but they haven't been able to do so for full games, in part due to the injuries and that Andersen is still rebuilding the depth in Year Two. But one way to negate much of that is to win the special teams battle and if possible, to win it big. I'd think OSU's special teams will be gunning for big moments vs. WSU in this game.
Question: What is your prediction including score?
BB: I can see a number of scenarios playing out, frankly. The one that seems most likely, on paper anyway, is for Washington State to look to run the ball like it did vs. Oregon. In that game, WSU handed the ball off to its running backs 35 times.
I think OSU will give Washington State a battle for a while longer than some expect, and the Cougs will eventually pull away in a game closer than the final score would indicate. I'll go with WSU 45, Oregon State 21.