“Bad things happen quickly when you lose your recruiting niche and can't compete in the current environment,” explained CougCenter.com writer Brian Anderson of Washington State’s woes since Mike Price’s exit almost a dozen years ago. The Cougars’ steep decline can be traced to a new landscape across college football, where it’s harder to land the kind of hidden talent Price lured to the Palouse. Why is this so? The latest edition of “Opposing Views” will get you up to speed.
The Bootleg: Your team has come a long way under Mike Leach, but I'm sure there are things going on that leave a lot to be desired. How would you rate his progress? What kind of work is left to be done? Can he equal the success Mike Price achieved, or is that not realistic for the foreseeable future?
Brian Anderson: If we leave this season out of it and just look back on his first two, I'd rate it pretty highly. Maybe a B-plus. Looking at where they're at now, you see a team that won some games last season it probably shouldn't have and lost a few games already this year that they probably shouldn't have. The program hasn't quite plateaued, but the Cougars aren't playing consistently. Leach has largely made the turnaround with players he didn't recruit and freshman/sophomores that he did. They float between talent-deficient at some areas, or really young at most spots. Price’s team would be very relevant every five or so years, and very good every ten or so. I can see Leach being able to get a WSU team to contend in the North within the next few seasons, but it's hard to imagine this team competing for a title without major improvement on defense.
TB: Speaking of Price, the Cougars had a nice run there from 2001 through Bill Doba's first season of 2003 (a Sun Bowl victory, followed by Washington State’s last Rose Bowl berth and then a Holiday Bowl win against Texas). He put together no shortage of solid teams the previous decade. What in the world happened? What are the biggest factors in that collapse?
Brian Anderson: Price took advantage of high-risk kids other programs wouldn't touch. He was kind of notorious for grabbing risky JUCO transfers and providing a sort of family atmosphere up in Pullman where they could be successful. More often than not, that worked out for him. Recruiting has obviously changed a whole lot since then. With as many services as there are now, plus the internet, the camps, etc., it's more difficult to find that unknown sort of kid that WSU relied upon (EDITOR NOTE: To his point, the 2001 Sun Bowl champion Cougars featured tailback Dave Minnich, a 27-year-old JC transfer and ex-Marine.) Some Coug fans still think there's value in only going after "diamond in the rough" type talent because Price was so successful with it.
Pair that reality with the facilities explosion around the conference: WSU was stagnant throughout the 2000’s, while other programs just kept building up. There was a span of a few real terrible recruiting classes, then a giant mistake hire at head coach (EDITOR NOTE: Paul Wulff lost 32 of his 36 conference games), and all of a sudden we weren't at the bottom tier of the PAC-10 but all FBS. Bad things happen quickly when you lose your recruiting niche and can't compete in the current environment.
TB: Regarding about Connor Halliday's numbers (3,052 passing yards, 26 touchdowns), what makes him so good? Do you feel the Cougars were compelled to throw that much in the game against Cal, or given the circumstances (the Bears virtually scoring at will), should there have been more of an effort to run the ball and keep Cal's offense off the field? And talk about the decision to fire the special teams coach, and if there's any relation between that move and his decisions early in his tenure to kick so many players off the team. Has Leach shown that kind of a hair trigger with coaches before?
Brian Anderson: Halliday can make any throw on the field, throughout the last few seasons he was adamant to prove it too. This year he's really played within himself and the offense. He takes what's available and throws on target. Interception numbers speak contrary to this, but he really is one of the most accurate passers in college football. Receivers are starting to pile up major YAC numbers because he's putting them in good spots to make a play.
The WSU offensive gameplan isn't really concerned with what the opponents do. They're on full attack all the time. If you score, you put pressure on that other offense too. Cal was able to match at the same clip in the second half, but the thought is most teams won't.
Chris Brown of smartfootball.com mentioned the most ornery Coach Leach is the Coach Leach after a loss…when his offense did enough to win. That was certainly the case last Saturday. This is a results-oriented game, and the special teams weren’t getting the desired results. The attrition from a coaching change is pretty common with all new hires, just look at what's happening with Charlie Strong and Texas. Players that don't fit the new culture or new standard have to go. Leach fired a defensive coordinator mid-season while he was at Texas Tech, but I certainly wouldn't say that's an MO for him or anything.
TB: Your defense, for all its issues, showed some real promise against Oregon with all the times it sacked Marcus Mariota and got in his face. Who are the group's major players that could have an impact on Friday? What do you think needs to happen for the Cougars to pull the upset?
Brian Anderson: Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole at defensive tackle and nose tackle, respectively, will need to have a real big game stopping the run. The same goes for linebackers Darryl Monroe and Jeremiah Allison. Playing Stanford, the first and most important thing is stopping the run. If the Cardinal gets a run game going, a lot of bad things can follow. Maybe safeties cheat up and Montgomery gets behind them, or Cajuste starts running wide open off play action, or you just get beat up on multiple drives of 10 plays or more.
Defensively WSU will need to slow that rush and make Hogan beat them through the air. The WSU secondary is real iffy and he torched them in Seattle last year, but that's still the best shot they have at limiting the Stanford offense. Hogan hasn't really shown himself to be a reliable passer, and the Cardinal have struggled when it's been on him to make plays with his arm. Washington State will want to get Stanford passing downs while avoiding getting beaten by Montgomery or Cajuste, a tall order for sure.
Offensively WSU needs to score, as simple as that sounds. Stanford has had a few problems getting into the end zone. If WSU can drive the game up to four or five touchdowns, the Cardinal haven't shown they can hang in a shootout. Of course, they haven't had to because the Cardinal defense is outstanding. Halliday is faster through reads this year, and that'll matter a lot for this game. The Cougars’ past few opponents have been pretty content to weakly rush three or four and play man or a soft zone. I don't expect the same from Stanford. They'll get after him, so Halliday, the offensive line and receivers will all need to be on point making sure the ball gets out quickly and where it needs to go.
TB: How do you envision the rest of the season playing out for Washington State? And what do you make of the season so far for the Pac-12? Last year was defined by its strength (eight teams ranked in the Top 25 at one point or another). What do you think of how the league's contenders have had their weaknesses exposed -- UCLA's offensive line, Oregon's run game, Stanford's overall offensive deficiencies, USC's depth -- so early on this season?
Brian Anderson: As far as Washington State goes, I have no idea. Regarding the conference, this season has been pretty bananas. Seemingly every team is really good at one thing, while all the while possessing a fatal flaw that someone could take advantage of. Whether that's WSU with their offense and weak secondary, Stanford with their defense and passing offense, Oregon with their offensive line...you can go down the line. Every team has something someone can expose and something that makes them truly formidable. I think all you can do is shrug at the conference right now. I don't see how anyone could have a solid handle on how it'll play out. Hopefully the champion isn't wearing more than two losses and left out of the playoff. I don't think that'll happen, but because of the things you've listed it feels like top Pac-12 teams have taken more of a hit from parity than the SEC West teams have.
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