High-Flyin' Mike Talks Up Other Cats

PULLMAN -- Stop the pinching. Control the slapping. This season is <i>not</i> a dream. So quit trying to wake yourselves, Cougfans. Yes, the Cougs are 6-0. Yes, they are on top of the Pac-10. And, yes, despite what <b>Mike Price</b> says about Montana State's speed, it would take the biggest meltdown this side of Chernobyl for the Cougars not to be 7-0 when they go to bed after Thursday night's regionally televised cat fight.

No matter that WSU's top two backs -- David Minnich and Allen Thompson --- are out with injury. No matter that linebackers Serign Marong and Raonall Smith are dinged up.

The Cougars are deeper than they've been years. It's mid October, they're undefeated and they control their own destiny. Heck, ESPN's even carrying Price's weekly press conference live --- live, for goodness sake.

These are indeed halcyon days on the Palouse -- the likes of which have been seen only three other times in the last 70 years.

Which means it's just another opportunity for Coach Price --- dubbed by one sports writer as "Lazarus with a Whistle" -- to downplay his team's success and talk up his opponent's.

"It's been a while since I've been in the Big Sky and it's definitely changed," said Price, who began his head-coaching career at Weber State. "Coach (Mike) Kramer has done a great job with that program. I was surprised when watching their tapes, and the players were surprised as well. They're vastly improved; they're athletic and I don't really see a whole lot of weaknesses on their team."

OK, but do they really have a chance against the high-flying Cougs?

"They have a big, strong offensive line and they'll give their running back (Ryan Johnson) the ball 40 times a game if they can," Price said. "They're offense is very good when they get ahead, and their team speed and athleticism is much better than I remember for a team in the Big Sky."

But do they have what it takes to go on the road and knock off the No. 18 team in the country?

If Troy State can upset Mississippi in Starkville, which they did last week, anything is technically possible.

And the Bobcats, 0-11 a year ago, are in better shape to compete than anyone could have imagined coming into this 2001 campaign. With three straight wins and a 4-3 overall mark they sit atop the Big Sky Conference.

Improvement like that has Price wary, but not to the point Price wants the upset potential weighing heavy on his players' minds.

"I'm not really trying to emphasize the possibility of being upset too much. But I don't want our guys to underestimate any team," Price said. "Coming from the Big Sky I know how much this game means for those kids and their coaching staff."

Whether the Cougs will look to exploit the Bobcat secondary or try and control the ground game remains to be seen.

"We'll just take what they give us, if they put a bunch of people in the box we'll spread it out and throw it. If they come out in a prevent set and we can match up on-on-one we'll run the ball," Price said. "It's just like any other game, if we can find a weakness early then we'll try to exploit it until they find a way to stop us."

While the Bobcats' weaknesses may include a suspect secondary and depleted receiver corps, a lack of confidence and speed certainly won't be on the list.

"We are a team of great speed, and can play at speed," Kramer said. "That will benefit us for the rest of the season."

Price is positive overconfidence won't be a problem for his Cougs. After all, their long road into the Top 20 is at stake.

"We'll take our current position right now, but obviously we'd like to improve our ranking, and to do that we'll have to have a good showing against Montana State," Price said.

With Minnich and Thompson out of commission, the key Thursday night will be whether Tippins and the Cougar offensive line can mount a sustained ground game against a Bobcat defensive line that is vastly improved. The MSU defensive front has already registered 28 tackles for loss and 14 sacks this year. The Cougs, behind the strong arm of Jason Gesser and fly-paper hands of Nakoa McElrath and Mike Bush, should be able to stretch the field, allowing Tippins to run wild against a defense that comes into the game allowing over 26 points per contest. Cold and wet weather may put a damper on the O, but look for the Cougars to crack 50. And if everything goes well in the first half, look for tomorrow's stars --- Trandon Harvey, Matt Kegel, Tali Ena, Jimmy Wilson and others -- to get some serious PT.

* McElrath was named this week to ABC-TV Sports' Midseason All-America team. He is currently averaging 6.5 receptions per game and 105.5 yards per game and is one behind the national lead with eight touchdown receptions.

* WSU allowed 100 yards rushing for the first time last week against Stanford, when Brian Allen gained 133 yards snapping a streak of five consecutive games to start the season.

* There's no accounting for the value of experience. With 147 total tackles among the, WSU seniors Raonall Smith, Lamont Thompson, Billy Newman and James Price account for 40 percent of the Cougars' tackles this season.

* WSU is averaging 33 points in the first half of games this season and 18 in the second half. * Montana State features 10 players from Washington state, including starting quarterback Tyler Thomas (Prosser), who transferred from Oregon State last season. * The decision to play on Thursday night was reached by both head coaches, Price said. "It was something both Mike and I decided on. It gives our fans and recruits a chance to see us on television and it gives their team some exposure," Price said. "Another reason we selected Thursday was so both teams would have a couple extra days to prepare for our next conference opponents."

* The Cougar-Duck game on Oct. 27 in Pullman is shaping up as a sell out and will be aired live by ABC with a 4 pm kickoff. The payout from ABC, $300,000-plus, will offset the revenue lost when the Colorado game was canceled.

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