WSU Q&A with Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth: Part I

AFTER A LENGTHY conversation with Pac-12 Networks football analyst Yogi Roth, it’s easy to feel optimistic about the future of Washington State football. In a phone interview with Cougfan.com this week, Roth unloaded praise on quarterbacks Luke Falk and Peyton Bender and said that he sees the Cougs a sleeper team in the Pac-12 North.

That should be welcome news for a WSU fan base coming off a 3-9 season. Skeptics remain, but few, if any, are as well versed in Pac-12 football than Roth. A former grad assistant at USC and the best-selling co-author of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s book “Win Forever,” Roth made a compelling case for the Cougars to return to a bowl game in Mike Leach’s fourth season.

Here is the first part of the exclusive Cougfan.com Q&A:

CF.C: At this point, is it possible to handicap the quarterback competition between third-year sophomore Luke Falk and second-year freshman Peyton Bender?

Roth: "I think they're both legitimate Pac-12 starting quarterbacks. Clearly, Luke Falk proved it a year ago. And I called a couple of his games: when he played well and when he struggled against Arizona State. He blew my mind with his ability to scan the field, get through progressions, play at the same platform regardless of down and distance or specific situation.

To me when you turn on the film, one of the first things I do… I want to see if quarterbacks on third downs or when there is pressure coming, of when they're in the red zone or backed up -- do they play at the same platform? And by that I mean you look at their head and how much movement does it have? How much is it going up and down, up and down? Is he playing on his toes? Are all his cleats on the ground?

“He had a poise about him. I'll never forget I had a conversation with Leach last year before the Cal game and he talked about how Halliday had never had the opportunity to sit in the film room and watch a quarterback run the Mike Leach system.

"What was so obvious is that Luke Falk had the ability to do that. He had learned so much. I believe this still to this day -- his first few starts were much better than Connor Halliday's first few starts. And I don't even know the numbers but just from a comfort level in that system because I called a bunch of games in that first year when Halliday was splitting time -- Falk was phenomenal.

“To put a button on Luke: I was ridiculously impressed with his first year. I loved how he struggled against Arizona State because of the exotic pressures and am still looking forward to him playing again if he wins the job because I think his jump from a few games last year to potentially running this team, and being the starter and calling plays at the line of scrimmage like they do, will be good as anybody's year one to year two jump."

CF.C: Was it more impressive that Falk picked up the system so quickly?

Roth: "Yeah, it is. Clearly, you're tailoring what you're calling to specific situations to the skill set of this young quarterback, right? When you watched him on tape, it's not as though he just threw slants, fades and seams. They weren't afraid to use a lot. We did a bunch of ‘telestration’ stuff where he was getting through his progressions. Where you watched his eyes go from one, to see two, to clearly see three, and then get the ball to four… to me, that was really impressive.

"I say all that and I've known Peyton Bender since he was 16. And I say it on the signing day show if you go back: He has the unique arm talent of Drew Brees. He has that release that Coach Leach has talked about, the staff has talked about. That's unique.

I always talk about quarterbacks because everybody can throw and read coverages, but what are your unique traits? His unique trait is how the ball ‘speaks.’ His rotation, the revolutions on the ball, are just more dynamic than, you could argue, the top half of the quarterbacks in the Pac-12. He could throw 7-on-7 with every one of them. And I saw that in high school with the Elite 11's. To watch him sit last year -- it could have been him.

"If (Falk’s) not there, he's going to do exactly what he did in the game. So I think you’ve got a great situation at that position for Washington State."

CF.C: Do you see Falk as the favorite going into fall camp?

"I think he has to be, for sure. But I also know Mike Leach well enough where he doesn't care about favorites. He's not going to worry about what you did last year. It's what can you do to help us win. How can you rally the guys? They're replacing the face of the program for the last couple years. He's going to look for all those things.

"How are you when it's hard? You've been around coach for a while now. When it gets difficult, that's when you have to excel. (Falk) did his job when it was hard a year ago and I think (Bender) will get his opportunities as well…You look at Portland State and nothing against Portland State but you may be able to play both guys.

But the rest of the way -- Washington State isn't a program where they can afford to not have that figured out. Rutgers isn't an easy place to fly -- it'll be a noon game just because (that makes it more difficult). It will be one of those tough games for them coming into Week 2. For them to get to a bowl game, they’ve got to start off at least 3-1, probably 4-0.”

CF.C: The Cougars are again expected to finish close to or at the bottom of the Pac-12 North. A recent offshore sportsbook set their over/under at five wins. Is that a fair number?

Roth: "I think it's fair because everybody else is talented. A little further along. But I think the North compared to the South, where as the South is -- I think you can argue that five teams can compete for the South championship and go win the Pac-12 Championship and go win in the College Football Playoff. In the North, you can argue that outside of Stanford and Oregon, everybody else you can kind of make an argument for. Anyone can be a No. 3 when you get to next year, and you wouldn't be surprised.

And I think they'll beat up on each other. You look at Washington. They're probably going to play a freshman quarterback or a first-year starter at quarterback. They're replacing (almost) their entire defense. You look at Oregon State. Clearly it's a rebuild there. You look at Cal. Cal will be the sleeper. Do they still have the secondary that is one of the worst in the country the last three years -- arguably the worst, statistically.”

"I think Cal, Washington State, Washington, Oregon State. I don't think it's fair to say who the sixth team is. You could be the third team. You could be the sixth team.

"I think Washington State is a sleeper in terms of the people it's bringing back, what they're going to do up front. They're going to run the ball better. They're going to be a much-improved team. They played Oregon better than anyone other than Arizona a year ago.

"They competed in a majority of their games."

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