Washington State Preview

SCPlaybook's Lyle Everett dives deep to preview the Washington State Cougars as they get ready to take on the heavily-favored USC Trojans at the Palouse this Saturday afternoon. FSN will carry live coverage starting at 12:30 PM PST.

Coaching

Former second-team All Pac-10 and Honorable Mention All-American offensive lineman Paul Wulff is in his first year at the helm of his alma mater. A 1990 grad, Wulff has spent the previous 15 seasons at Eastern Washington University, the final eight spent as head coach amassing a 53-40 record. Wulff was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year three times (2001, 2004, 2005) and led EWU to the Football Championship Subdivision (Formerly Division 1-AA) Playoffs three out of the last four years. His 2007 squad went 9-4, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Appalachian State.

Wulff was a four year starter at Wazzu and played for three different coaches during his collegiate career: Jim Walden (1986), Dennis Erickson (1987-88) and Mike Price (1989). He was the starting center on Washington State's 1988 Aloha Bowl championship team that defeated the high-powered offense of the Houston Cougars, led by future Heisman trophy winner Andre Ware. Athletic Director Jim Sterk cited the need for hiring a head coach familiar with the lay of the land in Pullman as well as experience in recruiting the Pacific Northwest as key factors in determining who would coach Washington State after Bill Doba was let go. The Cougs firmly believe they have their leader for the foreseeable future.

Offense

A year ago, QB Alex Brink was almost the entire Washington State offense as he threw for 3,818 yards and 26 touchdowns, possessing a good arm and valuable experience that the Cougars desperately miss. Heading into the 2008 campaign, Gary Rogers was named heir apparent, but a cervical spine fracture has ended his senior season and given junior Kevin Lopina (6'3", 232 lbs) the opportunity he has been waiting for. Lopina is a 2005 graduate of De La Salle High School and came to Pullman after redshirting the 2005 season at Kansas State. He has appeared in three games, completing 54% of his passes for 315 yards and a 0:5 TD to INT ratio. The Cougars turned to Marshall Lobbestael to lead the team during the last three contests after a combination of a fractured vertebrae and overall ineffectiveness took Lopina to the sidelines. Lobbestael responded well, throwing for 571 yards, 4 TDs and 4 INTs and completing 51% of his attempts. However, as has been a recurring theme throughout the '08 season for Wazzu, it was announced earlier in the week that Lobbestael is out for the season, suffering a torn MCL and ACL. The game plan as of now is to go back to Lopina to see what he can come up with against the Trojans. Should Lopina struggle against USC, or not be physically able to play, the Cougars will turn to J.T. Levenseller, whose father Mike is the wide receivers coach. Levenseller is a 6'1" freshman from Pullman High School and was All-State during his senior year.

The Cougars returned two solid running backs from last year's squad, Dwight Tardy (St. Paul HS) and Chris Ivory, who combined for 989 yards a year ago. But the injury bug is no stranger to this position as well and Ivory is more than likely going to miss the game this weekend, with Tardy currently "questionable". As a result, the Trojans may get a steady dose of touted junior college transfer Chantz Staden (5'11", 205 lbs). Staden leads the team with two rushing touchdowns this season and doubles as the Cougars return man for both punts and kickoffs.

Much as Brink was most of the entire offense last year, Brandon Gibson is the man to watch this weekend for Washington State. Gibson hauled in 67 passes last year for 1,180 yards and nine touchdowns and is one of the most dangerous deep threats in the nation. He has caught a pass in 30 consecutive games and, barring injury, will end up breaking the school record for receptions and receiving yards. An All Pac-10 First Team WR last year, Gibson was recently named to the Maxwell Trophy watch list, given to the nation's most outstanding college football player. Through seven games this season, Gibson has caught 38 balls for 486 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that would surely be greater if he had a more seasoned talent throwing him the ball.

Jeshua Anderson (Taft HS) starts opposite of Gibson. Anderson is a sophomore who truly possesses world class speed. A member of the track team at WSU, he won the 400m hurdles at the NCAA Championships in a school-record 48.69 seconds. He was a state champ in high school, posting the fastest time in prep history at the 300m hurdles (35.28). He averaged 31 yards per catch last season and thus far has caught 17 passes for 201 yards in 2008.

Senior LT Vaughn Lesuma is out with a shoulder injury and replacing him will be no easy task. Lesuma started all 12 games last season and at 6'5", 330 pounds is the anchor of the O-Line. Either Joe Eppele or Will Hunter will get the start in his place, neither of which is an upperclassman. Eppele is 6'8" however, so it should be easy to spot him when he's in the game. Kenny Alfred is the oldest starter on the OL. The junior letterman will be relied upon heavily throughout the season and must step up to provide the support the young pups around him desperately need. This is a unit that is very much inexperienced and their youth will be tested by the heavily-favored Trojans.

Defense

Washington State gave up over 421 yards per game in 2007 and is currently the #114 ranked defensive team in the nation, so there is plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. While eight starters returned for the beginning of the season, the overall talent level is very modest by Pac-10 standards. The Cougars best defensive player could very well be Andy Mattingly, who has seen time at LB last year, but is primarily being used on the DL this season. Recording 91 tackles with eight sacks last year, Mattingly enjoyed a breakout campaign and established himself as one of the big play defenders in the conference. He has 3.5 sacks this year and has forced a fumble for the Cougs. Tackle Fevaeai Ahmu returns for starting duty on the front line, but racked up on 22 tackles last season and mostly plugs holes and eats space. Program veterans Matt Eichelberger (6'4", 317 lbs) and Kevin Kooyman round out the starting D-Line.

The linebackers are led by senior MLB and 2007 All Pac-10 Honorable Mention Greg Trent (5'11", 230 lbs), who in 2007 racked up 89 tackles and four sacks. 2008 has seen virtually no drop off from Trent, as he leads the Cougars in just about every defensive category, totaling 46 tackles, 5.5 sacks and an interception. Sophomore Myron Beck gets the nod over senior Corey Evans on the strong side, and freshman Louis Bland has taken over the starting position at weak side ‘backer. Last week against Oregon State, Bland registered the first defensive touchdown for the Cougars, returning a Lyle Moevao INT sixteen yards for a score.

Opponents completed 61% of their passes for 23 touchdowns against last season's secondary, so WSU has a lot of room for improvement going forward. The most concerning needs are at cornerback, where Devin Giles and Chima Nwachukwu have been replaced by Romeo Pellum and Tyrone Justin. Nwachukwu was thrown to the wolves as a true freshman last season, though he has shown recent signs of potential at strong safety, where he has played mostly this year. Neither Pellum nor Justin have interceptions on the year. Junior free safety Xavier Hicks (6'0", 196 lbs) is second on the team with 33 tackles this season and leads the young secondary with two picks. Alfonso Jackson is the starting SS in his last season before graduation, leading the team with four pass breakups.

Special Teams

Sophomore Nico Grasu serves the team in placekicking duties and is 5-7 on the season with a 47 yard long. He has had one attempt blocked. Reid Forrest is one of the better punters in the Pac-10 and would have to be considering how many times he asked to place the team in better field position. Forrest has punted 39 times this season, averaging 40 yards per punt, pinning 11 inside the 20 yard line.

Notes

Martin Stadium is the smallest in the Pac-10, but offers the most seating for students in the conference…The Cougars have a record of 8-55-4 against the Trojans dating back to 1921… The last time these two teams met in Pullman the Trojans escaped with a 28-22 win, Sept. 30, 2006… Through the first seven weeks of the 2008 season, 23 WSU players have registered their first collegiate start, 15 on offense and eight on defense… Randall Simmons, a former WSU football player and Los Angeles SWAT team member who was killed in the line of duty last February, will be remembered by WSU at halftime of the USC game…. Washington State's streak of 280 consecutive games having scored is the second-longest active streak in the nation and will be put to test against the Trojans who are coming off a 28-0 shutout performance last week vs. Arizona State…Wazzu is currently a 43 point home underdog, one of the largest point spreads in recent history (Stanford was a 41 point underdog when they upset USC in the Coliseum last season)…


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