Q: 1. What were Washington State's biggest question marks going into camp? How were they answered?
A: The WSU secondary was the top question mark, with lots of inexperienced youth. Some questions were answered in that cornerback Daquawn Brown and safety Taylor Taliulu have looked mostly solid. But the WSU secondary is going to be tested at times this season and they are simply young. Safety Darius Lemora looks to have a bright future and he's a huge hitter but he's not consistent enough yet. The key is for Lemora and the entire defensive backfield to play within the scheme and it's sometimes an issue with younger players to resist the urge to freelance.
The offensive linewas the second biggest question coming into fall camp, being that they are replacing three starters. It's become clear those guys will be Riley Sorenson at center, Eduardo Middleton at right guard and Cole Madison at tackle. The line has done well at times, lost the battle in the trenches in others. There's a sense of optimism there, though, because while they may be both young and not quite as deep as last year, offensive line coach Clay McGuire believes they will be better than last year and that they have been going up against a very good defensive front. It will be important for the o-line to stay healthy this season, with limited experienced depth.
2. The strengths in the passing game for Washington State are obvious. What weaknesses to you see entering the season?
The primary issue has been scoring enough points given the large number of yards gained. In Mike Leach's first year, that was pronounced. Last year, that increased, but with still room for improvement. This year, fans are optimistic it will take a good-sized jump given that WSU returns their top eight pass-catchers (rare indeed) and has a fifth-year QB at the helm. Another issue is that the defense last year might play great two plays in a row, and then on the third suffer breakdowns that placed WSU low in several defensive stat categories. WSU needs considerably more consistency on defense in 2014 and especially to get off the field on third down when those opportunities present themselves.
3. How much of a difference have you seen In Connor Halliday with the amount of experience he has under Mike Leach? How strong is he in a no-huddle offense?
The best illustration of that is in looking at his interceptions last season. He forced the ball in the first half of the year and made some poor decisions, no two ways about it, tossing 17 picks through week seven. But he threw just five picks over the over the final six weeks including the bowl game. It's also important to realize any Leach quarterback is going to probably have more picks than the other guys -- Halliday attempted a monster 714 passes last season. Halliday is completely comfortable in the no-huddle, air raid attack and has arguably one of the top receiving corps in the nation that will run eight deep on game days.
4. What is the team and fan reaction to playing this one in Seattle? What kind of fan support does Washington State usually get in Seattle?
The team seems more than fine with it -- the fans not so much. The attendance has for the most part steadily decreased over the 11-game history, although you could make the argument that's to be expected with a coinciding 10-year bowl game drought that was finally broken last season. Last year's attendance for Stanford, with a little over 40,000 tickets sold, was the lowest ever for the Seattle game. Unfortunately, if you compare the number of tickets sold last year and this year a week before the game, the tilt against Rutgers might set the new bar for fewest butts in the seats. It's very possible with the new football operations building in Pullman and several other stadium upgrades this season, this year's Seattle game could be the last seen for a while.
5. Who do you see as the "X-factor" for Washington State?
The running backs. WSU has the deepest collection of backfield talent running backs coach Jim Mastro has seen in his 30 years in the game. It's important to understand -- Leach doesn't want his backs to put up huge rushing numbers, what he instead wants is for them to lead the conference in all-purpose yards. And they have a chance to do that this season with Theron West and Jamal Morrow as the two who will get the lion's shares of touches, both in running and receiving. West turned the corner late last year and Morrow has been turning heads. A guy to also watch here is Gerard Wicks-- he packs a wallop and figures to be applied liberally off the bench. And the big takeaway is those three guys are higher on the depth chart than Marcus Mason -- all he did last year was lead the Cougs in all-purpose yards and was the team's second-leading receiver.
There's a second X-factor too and that's the defensive line. WSU fans are hoping the d-line is as stout as they've looked this fall camp. In d-line coach Joe Salave'a's first two seasons at WSU, he simply didn't have quality rotational depth, and he wasn't going to force guys in too early - that meant the starters had to go the whole way and it showed in the fourth quarter and in the back half of the season. This season is shaping up to be vastly different. Behind starters Xavier Cooper, Toni Pole and Destiny Vaeao, WSU has quality depth in the second-string with Robert Barber, Daniel Ekuale and Darryl Paulo. Count on WSU rotating much more this season up front and having a better, more consistent year on the d-line.
6. How deep are the offensive and defensive lines? Is the defensive line built more for pass rush or stuffing the run?
The defensive line, as illustrated above, is deep. The offensive line is not. The defensive line is adaptable -- as is WSU's overall scheme and substitution pattern -- against either the run or the pass. But if I was forced to pick just one, I'd say Mike Breske generally wants to stop the run first. If he can accomplish that, then WSU can turn some of their guys loose -- with the main priority then becoming takeaways.
7. What problems do you see Rutgers presenting in the opener?
WSU needs to form a consistent pocket around Halliday and allow ample time to go through his reads. WSU's offense is designed to find the weak points in space, and to use a good number of precision passes with a long run following the catch. But Halliday is not mobile and if a team gets heat on him, he's had to battle against making poor decisions.
WSU's defensive line will need to win the battle and take Rutgers out of their comfort zone. If Gary Nova has adequate time to throw, WSU's young, untested secondary will be pressed to stay in the hip pocket of the receivers for a lengthy amount of time. If the defensive line looks like they have in camp, it's going to make the secondary look good and their confidence will build in turn.