2005 Look Ahead: Washington State

Believe it or not, the Pac-10 gets it going tonight for the 2005 Football season with no less than three games. Washington State hosts the Vandals of Idaho in Pullman, where the Cardinal posted last year their only conference road win of the Buddy Teevens Era. WSU further piques our interest as Stanford's first Pac-10 road trip of 2005.

Washington State Cougars

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Washington State – October 8

Last Meeting: Stanford 23, Washington State 17 ('04)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Washington State/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 9/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 128/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 241/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 6/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 133/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 233/249
2004 Record: 5-6/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 7-4/4-7

Second Down: Offense

Washington State's offense will quietly be one of the most lethal attacks in the conference, as nearly all the key players return.

Alex Brink took the reins at quarterback after Josh Swogger went down with injury in the Stanford game last season.  Brink finished his freshman campaign completing half of his passes with seven touchdowns in five starts; this year, the redshirt sophomore will look to start where he left off.  Brink beat out the junior and former starter Swogger in preseason camp, which speaks volumes of how highly the staff thinks of Brink.

Brink's main receiving target will be Jason Hill, whose face should appear in the dictionary under "home run threat".  The junior's phenomenal 22.4 yards per catch in 2004 led him to 12 touchdowns on only 45 receptions, nearly double the yards per catch and touchdown-to-catch ratio of Reggie Bush, a rather explosive receiver himself.  With Brink now in his second year under head coach Bill Doba, Hill should again top the 1,000-yard barrier.  2004 Second Team All Pac-10 senior tight end Troy Bienemann provides Brink a larger target.

Helping Brink find his receivers will be a line that returns three starters, none more important than senior center Nick Mihlhauser, who received Honorable Mention All Pac-10 last season.  While the line should have no problem matching the 3.4 yards per carry it created last season, it actually is the least experienced unit on this offense with two new starters.

The star of this offense is senior running back and offensive co-captain Jerome Harrison.  Coming off injury, he started only five games last season, yet racked up 900 yards on over five yards per touch.  He averaged 172 yards per game in his final three contests, all against Pac-10 foes, and with good health, could rush for 1,500 yards his final season in Pullman.

Third Down: Defense

As seems to be a theme across the Pac-10, the Cougar defense looks to be a step or two behind the offense.

For the Cougars to make a postseason push, their defensive line needs to improve after allowing 138 rush yards per game last season, only seventh in the conference.  While three 2004 starters return, none appear to be the type of special force that Cougar faithful grew to love in Outland winner Rien Long just three seasons ago.  Without a stud on the line, it's hard to see this unit upgrading any significant amount.  This line has strictly average written all over it.

The star so needed on the line can be found in the next line of defense, however.  Last year, linebacker Will Derting led the team with 93 tackles and 12 stops for a loss en route to Second Team All Pac-10 honors, despite being hobbled by a wrist injury.  Junior linebacker Scott Davis also earned All Pac-10 Honorable Mention last season, so the ‘backers look to be this team's defensive strength.  Interestingly, Davis and Derting, now a healthy senior, headline a starting back seven comprised entirely of upperclassmen, yet only three of these upperclassmen started last season.

On that note, the 2005 Cougar secondary returns only one starter from a disappointing 2004 that saw opponents complete 56% of their passes.  Uh oh.  To add insult to injury, two of last years' starters are now in the NFL (Denver drafted corner Karl Paymah in the third round and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers grabbed free safety Hamza Abdullah in the seventh), suggesting that the Cougs are on the verge of a major talent drop-off.  Two JUCO transfers will be among those who attempt to stem the bleeding, but this secondary looks to be among the conference's most troubled, alongside Stanford's and Washington's.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- The Stanford contest will be Washington State's first in Pullman in over a month.  After the season-opener against Idaho, the Cougars will endure two road games, a bye week, and a neutral-field contest in Seattle before returning home for Stanford.

- With 15 returning starters, Washington State is the most experienced foe Stanford will face this season, alongside UCLA.  (Navy is the least experienced, returning just six of last year's starters.)

- Idaho, Nevada and Grambling State: with that out-of-conference schedule, Washington State must be considering a transfer to the SEC.

- Cheap shots aside, the soft non-conference slate may prove to be a smart move if it propels the Cougars to a bowl.  Facing a tough Pac-10 schedule (no Arizona; Cal and USC at home, means that Washington State faces most of their beatable opponents on the road), those three non-conference cupcakes may make the difference if the Cougars go 3-5 or 4-4 in-conference.

- It's conceivable the Cougars could start their season 6-0, with the three non-Pac-10 softies, Oregon State, Stanford, and homecoming against UCLA atop the schedule.  It's equally conceivable the Cougars drop their next four (Cal, USC, Arizona State and Oregon).

- Stanford too faces an incredibly back-loaded schedule.  With a front five of Navy, UC Davis, Oregon, Washington State and Arizona, and all the final six opponents playing in bowls last season (Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Oregon State, Cal and Notre Dame), the Cardinal better be 3-1 after this visit to Washington State and 4-1 after Arizona if a bowl game's still in the picture.

- Luckily for the Cardinal, they appear to match-up well against the Cougars.  Stanford offensively may be stronger through the air, precisely where the Cougs should be the weakest.  Defensively, Stanford's strong front seven will square off against the star running back Harrison, and number one corner T.J. Rushing could be given the task locking down Hill, Washington's State's only truly scary receiver.

- Despite being revered as one of the toughest road environments with some of the most rabid fans in the conference, maybe traveling to Pullman isn't the worst thing in the world for Stanford.  The Cardinal did eke out a "W" here last season.  Furthermore, Washington State is a strong 12-5 in their last 17 Pac-10 road games, and, save for a loss at USC, undefeated in their last nine conference contests in California.

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