Seven Keys to the 2011 Cougar season

IF THE COUGS are going to post 6-7 wins, or more, and go bowling in 2011, there are seven things Washington State must accomplish along the way.

There will come a time when the game is going to be on the line. And that moment can come early or late.

But whenever it comes, someone is going to have to step up, make that play and grab momentum for the Cougs. And then the Cougs have to hang onto ‘Ol Mo, stuff it in their back pocket and go on to seize control.

Washington State does not have to field a juggernaut running game. But they do have to prove its a credible threat.

WSU has to keep defenses honest and burn them if they sell out on the blitz and against the pass -- like opponents have done in the recent past.

Rickey Galvin is a gamebreaker but WSU doesn't want to run him 30 times a game and risk injury or fourth quarter malaise. Logwone Mitz needs to be the key factor here in providing the thunder to Galvin's lightning.

But don't rule out Marcus Mason. The true frosh looks to have played his way into 2011, and his speed has impressed in the latter half of fall camp.

The early schedule is the Cougars' friend in 2011. FCS opponent Idaho State is followed by a second game at home against UNLV. San Diego State is going to be a bellweather game – many think they're a Top 25 team and WSU plays them on the road. That's going to be a potential defining game. But even then, two conference games follow and while they're on the road as well, UCLA and Colorado are teams WSU can not only beat but if they're playing at a high clip, beat by a margin.

Then it gets tough, with Stanford, Oregon, ASU and others waiting. There is some good news about the latter half of the schedule, though – WSU finally gets Cal later in the season. The Bears modus operandi the past several campaigns has been to look like Top-5 world beaters early, followed by a spectacular crash in the second half. The Cougs also get Utah in the penultimate game of the regular season, and some predict the Utes will, having now gone through a physical Pac-12 slate, be far more vulnerable by the time they meet Wazzu – in Pullman – on Nov. 19.

A credible running threat should mean the difference between a solid year and a fearsome one by the Cougar receivers. WSU has more potential depth and talent at the WR spot than at anytime in at least the last 20 years, and that's saying something.

If the line can give Jeff Tuel just a little more time and the run game clicks a bit, WSU could be a sight to see throwing the ball in 2011. And a nightmare for opponents as the season goes on.

The defense will be improved but how much is the question. The Cougs had plenty of times last year where they looked good for a play or two, and then subsequently let someone rip off a big gainer. That must end.

The Cougars have more speed this year and the one thing they must do is simple – wrap up better and take away those yards after contact.

If they do the job they're capable of in that department, the Cougs will feature a defense that surprises a lot of people. If they don't, it could lead to some frustrating losses and a larger than average number of combined points.

Paul Sorensen pointed out in a recent CF.C piece the 1s will have to stay healthy because the 2s are still both young and green. Injuries are going to happen, though it would certainly seem not to the level in the past few years – the Cougs are stronger and more mature in '11 and that alone will decrease the number of dings, tweaks, breaks and pulls. The lack of fall camp injuries this season compared to previous is a good omen headed into Saturday.

But there will be some injuries, this is football after all, and some guys will miss time. Fans should expect some drop off after a backup is called upon -- there's a reason he's behind the starter. But the expectation is that it will not be as far a drop off as before – there's more speed and athleticism across the board, for starters. The bottom line is that the 2s must step up and hold the line in an injured starter's absence.

The Cougs' special teams took a decent sized jump forward last year in coverage. Now it's time to see a jump in returns.

The Cougs are going to be on a much more even playing field this season. And what a game may come down to in the end – when the offensive and defensive battles end up close to a push – are the special teams. A big return. A monster game in coverage, and maybe a turnover or two. Nailing field goals when the opportunity presents itself early, and in crunch time. These are likely to spell the difference in more games this season than some might realize – and ultimately the difference between winning and losing, and going bowling.

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