2006 Look Ahead: Washington State

Stanford fans well remember running back Jerome Harrison, who almost single-handedly upended the Cardinal in Pullman last year. The question of the day for the 2006 Cougar offense is how potent the attack can be without the prolific runner. Moreover, how much can a doormat defense improve, featuring one nasty pass rusher but losing a linebacker who was the heart of WSU's defense for three years?

Washington State Cougars

First Down: Quick Hitters

Washington State @ Stanford – September 23

Last Meeting: Stanford 24, Washington State 21 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Washington State/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 6/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 14.6/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 212/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 5.3/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 277/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 56.7/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 8/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 14.1/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 154/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.8/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 289/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 59.3/60.8
2005 Record: 4-7/5-6

Second Down: Offense

The receivers, led by Jason Hill, are top-notch, Alex Brink returns at quarterback and the offensive line should only be slightly worse than last year's solid unit, but the 600-pound elephant remains: how do you replace Jerome Harrison?

In one season, Harrison transformed a bottom-feeder attack into an offense as good as any in Pullman since the 1997 Rose Bowl squad.  Rushing yards per game nearly went from worst to first (128 to 212), and as defenses stuffed the box, passing percentage made a quantum leap from 48.6 to 56.7 percent.  No surprise then that the bottom line in football, points per game, climbed from 25 to over 33.

The question for 2006 is whether the departing Harrison or the rest of the offense, most of which returns, was responsible for the productivity.  On the one hand, Harrison was only a fifth-round draft pick.  Senior wideout Jason Hill is two-time Second-Team All Pac-10 (and underrated at that slot, in my opinion) and Michael Bumpus was Honorable Mention All Pac-10 opposite Hill.  On the other, Harrison averaged 6.2 yards per carry and gained 1,900 yards, shattering the old school mark by nearly 300 yards and placing himself fifth all-time for single-season Pac-10 rushing.  Numbers do not tell the whole story though.  After seeing him in person, I can only definitively put Willis McGahee, Reggie Bush and, ironically now, Maurice Clarett ahead of him as college running backs of the past few years.

Enough of the eulogy for Harrison, though, as plenty of talent returns on the O.  Quarterback Alex Brink will not go All Pac-10, but presents a nice dual threat as both a runner and pure passer.  He threw for nearly 3,000 yards last season, but needs to cut down on the 13 interceptions.

At back, replacing Harrison falls to DeMaundray Woolridge, who is having an impressive camp after putting in returner duty in his freshman season last year.  Woolridge steps into the limelight after presumptive starter J.T. Deiderichs failed to qualify academically.  He hopes to transfer back to Washington State in January for the 2007 campaign.

On the line, three-year starting center Nick Mihlhauser, Second Team All-Pac-10 last year, and two-year starter Norvell Holmes depart, but offensive line coach George Yarno has an excellent NFL-style read-and-react scheme and three starters do return, including star left guard Sean O'Connor.  Topping last year's numbers with Harrison will be impossible, but the line should do more than its part to open up the holes for Woolridge and give Brink time.

And Brink will be searching for his wideouts, among the best in the league.  Hill and Bumpus are All Pac-10, and junior college transfer Charles Dillon and senior Chris Jordan provide depth.  At tight end, senior Cody Boyd's heel injury is one to watch with three-year starter Troy Bienemann having graduated.

Third Down: Defense

After an awful campaign last season, this year's defense may prove far pluckier.

Last year, the 36.5 points and 502 yards allowed per Pac-10 contest only tell part of the story – Washington State gave up game-winning scores against Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Cal and Oregon in the fourth quarter, so a slightly fresher defense could have put the Cougars in contention for the Pac-10 title instead of last place.  While the D looks better this year than last, I would expect it to improve into an average unit at best.

The line is a strength, as Adam Braidwood is the only departing starter and Second-Team All Pac-10 end Mkristo Bruce leads the unit.  However, two second-string linemen have been suspended indefinitely for team rule violations and the unit only notched 34 sacks, their lowest since 2000, last season.  Look for the unit to be improved, but as with the defense as a whole, the question is one of degree.

At linebacker everyone returns save for Honorable Mention All Pac-10 middle linebacker Will Derting.  The talent that remains without Derting though is suspect, especially behind senior starters Scott Davis (Honorable Mention All Pac-10 for two years) and Steve Dildine.  Sophomore middle linebacker Greg Trent likely steps into Derting's spot, making him and Woolridge two of the players in the conference with the biggest shoes to fill.  A best-case scenario will see this unit play as well as it did last year, as the additional experience of Davis and Dildine compensates for the loss of Derting.

Two starters depart off a secondary that was, alongside Stanford's, sitting in the Pac-10 cellar last year.  Cougar fans are thinking it is addition by subtraction, and hope the openings give some young talent the chance to shine.  I cannot believe Husain Abdullah is just a junior – he anchored the secondary from that free safety spot last year.  Abdullah is the guy with the most experience, but corner Tyron Brackenridge, a junior college transfer, showed tremendous potential in practices.  He started as a returner in 2004, but was academically ineligible last year, which may have cost the Cougars a bowl berth.  Fans are itching for his return this year.  The rest of the secondary is nothing to write home about.  I have major questions about the second corner, whoever happens to back into the spot (although that is true in a lot of camps this time of year).  Without a doubt, the secondary will prevent Washington State from contending with the Pac-10 elite, but whether it will doom an otherwise .500 team to the cellar remains to be seen.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Washington State has a monster season-opener on their schedule: a September 2 visit to Auburn.  I think it is a no-lose scenario for the Cougars and the Pac-10 – a demolition is expected, so anything better will bring some credence to the Left Coast.  I expect Auburn, a national-title contender, to whip the Cougars' tail, but do not count out the Pac-10 representative quite yet: USC blanked the Tigers 23-0 at Auburn in their 2003 season-opener.

- Although Navy is the official unveiling of the new stadium, this game is the first game students will see in the new Stanford Stadium, and they will be loud.  Stanford needs a win here to keep those would-be fans, especially the bright-eyed freshmen whom have never seen a down of football before arriving on The Farm, coming back in the ensuing months.

- Stanford kicks off the Pac-10 schedule for Washington State, who had won their last four Pac-10 openers and last five Pac-10 road openers before falling 44-33 in Corvallis last year.  Prior to that setback, the Cougars last lost their conference opener in 2000 – appropriately enough, 24-10 to Stanford.

- Stanford has lost its last four home conference openers: double-digit setbacks to the Cougars in 2002 and 2003, the collapse against USC in 2004 and the shellacking versus Oregon last season.  The last win in a league home-opener was a 51-28 undressing of Arizona State in 2001.

- The Cougars last made a bowl in 2003.  This season, replacing the traditional non-conference cupcake with a visit to Auburn may continue that trend.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

5-7, 3-6 Pac-10

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