The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Southern Utah

IN THE PAST, this Saturday's tilt against Southern Utah may have been viewed as a "body bag" game, one where the Cougars reward an overmatched foe with fat paycheck in exchange for a home field whipping. In recent years including this season, we've learned that playing FCS schools can be anything but a breather.

About Southern Utah: The mere fact that the Thunderbirds are 2-0 says they believe they can leave Pullman at 3-0. Southern Utah is coming off a 49-0 blasting of Fort Lewis. In their season opener, Colton Cook kicked a 28-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat South Alabama 22-21.

Last year, Washington State was all out to beat Eastern Washington 24-20. In 2010, the Cougars needed a miraculous fourth quarter comeback to defeat Montana State 23-22.

We're aware of what happened a couple weeks ago, when Oregon State, Kansas State, Connecticut and Iowa State all lost to FCS schools. And Portland State was an eyelash from knocking off Cal last week.

A year ago, Southern Utah was 5-6, but that record included wins over Eastern Washington, Portland State and Montana. The Thunderbirds also played California, pulling to within 20-17 during the third quarter before losing 50-31.

This does not figure to be a five-touchdown blowout for the Cougs.

It could happen, but don't expect it.

Cougs vs Thunderbirds

The kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Martin Stadium.

The line: Washington State is a 21-point favorite as of Tuesday evening.

TV: Pac-12 Network

The rankings: Southern Utah is just outside the FCS's top 25, listed second in number of also receiving votes. Speaking of, is the Big Sky the SEC of FCS? Five teams were among last week's top 25, including three in the top 10 in Eastern Washington (2), Montana State (3) and Cal Poly (10). The top two also-receiving votes are Big Sky, and doesn't include Portland State, which last Saturday pushed California to the limit before losing 37-33.

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At a minimum, WSU will have to slow down quarterback Aaron Cantu, the nation's leading JC passer last year at East Los Angeles College with 3,358 yards and 32 touchdowns. Against Fort Lewis, Cantu completed 15 of 16 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. The Thunderbirds can run the ball, as Raysean Martin rushed for 107 yards against South Alabama.

Defensively, Southern Utah is giving up 275 yards per game this season. Among the Thunderbirds' top defenders are defensive end James Cowser and linebackers Matt Holley and Zak Browning. Cowser has 4½ tackles for loss through two games in 2013.

Others to watch are preseason All-America candidates Cook and offensive lineman Gavin Farr. The Thunderbirds were picked to finish ninth out of 13 teams in the Big Sky preseason media poll.

The series: This is the first game in the WSU-Southern Utah series. This is the fourth consecutive year the Cougars have played a Big Sky team.

Familiar faces: Four players on Southern Utah's roster have Washington roots in senior tight end Jacob Alle (Renton), sophomore linebacker Zak Browning (Vancouver), freshman offensive lineman Daniel Fleischman (Issaquah) and freshman receiver Junior Toala (Burien). No coaches have ties to Washington State, but defensive coordinator Justin Ena grew up in Shelton.

Last week:
How did that feel, Cougar fans? I'll be honest here: Washington State's 10-7 win over USC came as a big surprise. Big.

It's not that I think the Cougs weren't capable of beating USC. On a given Saturday, they had a chance. But in college football, where a team is dependent on 18, 19 and 20 year old players, winning the second of back-to-back road games is extremely difficult.

It's one of the sweet spots among college football bettors: bet against college football teams playing the second of back-to-back road games (without a bye week mixed in). Particularly if the first week, they played a rival or particularly emotional game. You could make a case for WSU, playing at Auburn in Week 1 fell into the latter category.

Last year, Washington State played in one back-to-back road situation last year. The result was a 49-6 loss at Utah, without a doubt the Cougars' worst performance of 2012. Saturday's win at USC ended an 11-game losing streak for WSU in the second of back-to-backs. The last time the Cougars won the second of the back-to-back road games was 2004, a 20-19 win at Arizona.

So kudos to the Cougs.

Thing is, it was a win and yet, there's so much room for improvement. Surely the Cougars will be better offensively than they were against USC. Hard to be worse, even if the game plan was tilted toward going after the short stuff against the Trojans. On the other hand, can WSU's defense play any better than it did Saturday? If so, or even if they're close, the Cougs are going to win a lot of games this season.

Should be fun to track.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at

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