Washington State didn't impress much in Price's first three years, but in 1992 Drew Bledsoe led the Cougars to a 9-3 record in his junior and final season in Pullman. Two years later a very nasty defense (they allowed 10 or less points in seven games) was the main reason why the Cougars went 8-4, including a 23-6 win over Washington. Then came a 3-8 and then a 4-7 campaign. Not exactly sustained success.
But 1997 of course brought unprecedented glory: a 10-1 regular season record, a Top-10 ranking, and a near-upset of eventual co-National Champion Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Had Ryan Leaf stuck around for another year, he might have not ended up with the sad legacy he currently possesses. But then again, he probably would have. Since Leaf's departure (and eventual NFL disgrace), Washington State had won only three Pac-10 games coming into the 2001 season.
Which lead of course to this season, where the Cougs have seemingly surprised everyone but their coach. Price, the Dean of Pac-10 coaches, has made a living of having a great season amid two or three previous bad ones, a "diamond in the rough" of sorts. Washington State is 5-0, its best since a 7-0 start in 1997. The 34-27 win last week over Oregon State represented the lowest offensive output for the Cougars, and folks all over eastern Washington are thinking big: Giddy Coug fans are even hoping for a 7-0 start this time around if they can sneak away with a win in Palo Alto on Saturday. Another soft opponent awaits (Montana State) next weekend – a Cougar victory would certainly set up a large showdown with Oregon on Oct. 27 in Pullman.
So how has Washington State gotten to this point? As with many former successful Cougar teams, offense has played a major part. While he doesn't fit the mold of his large and cannon-armed predecessors, Jason Gesser is one of the better signal-callers the conference has to offer. The redshirt-junior combines an accurate arm with a veteran-savvy and field awareness. He's completed 60% of his passes in 2001 for 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. He struggled at times with his poise last year, but definitely was one of those young quarterbacks who grew as the season went on. Washington State lost three overtime games in 2000 to some very tough opponents. Gesser himself was instrumental in bringing Washington State back to respectability, throwing for almost 2000 yards and 16 touchdowns while leading the conference in passing efficiency.
Stanford received a huge break when Dave Minnich, Washington State's leading rusher, injured his knee against Oregon State. The 27-year-old former Marine underwent arthroscopic surgery this week and will miss up to a month. Until the injury, Minnich had gained a conference-leading 589 yards, scored five touchdowns and posted an impressive 4.7 yards-per-carry average. He had a career day against an Oregon State defense that has already given up huge chunks of yardage in each game they've played. Minnich, who rushed for almost 800 yards last season, even threw a touchdown pass in the win over the Beavs last week.
The better Washington State squads always seem to possess good receivers in bunches, and this team is no different. Nakoa McElrath is the game-breaking threat of the bunch, a player who in his short career has averaged over 19-yards a reception. He already has a gaudy 34 catches and 598 receiving yards and 8 (!) touchdowns. He's 6'2", 195 lbs, not an especially impressive target physically, but her has a great sense for the ball. The Cougar receiving corps also has Mike Bush, a star on the hoops squad. In his first season of college football, Bush thus far has 20 catches and 441 yards, good for a hefty 22-yard average. At 6'6" he is also a big target and the tallest receiver Stanford defensive backs will face all year. He also tortured Cal to the tune of 144 receiving yards on only five grabs.
The offensive line doesn't possess any great giants, but it did open huge holes for Minnich last week against Oregon State, allowing him to roam free for 195-yards. Senior Joey Hollenbeck is the most experienced of the bunch. They aren't that big by today's standards either: two lightly-used freshman, the ironically named Sam Lightbody and Price Alley are two of the only three 300-pounders. Junior guard Phillip Locker is the other.
The Cougar defense itself is giving up an average of around 16 points-per-game in 2001 against teams that wouldn't exactly be confused for offensive juggernauts. The secondary isn't bad and has several stand-out players. Cornerback Billy Newman had 100 tackles in 2000 while also sneaking in for three sacks and four interceptions. Newman was the only Cougar to make 1st Team All-Pac-10 honors last season.
Fellow corner Erik Coleman himself is explosive at times, as evidenced by an interception he returned 34-yards for a touchdown off Jonathan Smith or Oregon State last week.
The defensive line and linebacking corps isn't especially dominant. However they possess Menlo Park's own Tupo Tuupo (not to be confused with Samoa Samoa, the Cougs's leader in passing in 1980), as well as linebacker James Price (72 tackles in 2000). Tuupo is an imposing figure at 6'3", 276 while Price hails from Anchorage, Alaska. To him, Pullman makes a good summer home.
The kicking game is basically average: nothing special, but nothing atrocious. Alan Cox is averaging around 39 yard per punt, while Drew Dunning does an adequate job at the placekicking duties. The junior kicked a career long 49-yard field goal two weeks ago at Arizona.
PREDICTION: Mike Price is 0-5 career at Stanford Stadium, while the Cougars haven't won here overall since 1988. That Dennis Erickson brought his Aloha Bowl-bound hoodlums into Palo Alto and sneaked away with a 24-17 win. The Cougars may be solid this year, but that won't cut it against Stanford. Gesser will throw at will at times but he alone will not lead Washington State to a 6-0 start: 38-28, Cardinal.