Gearing up for the Lobos

PULLMAN — Ten days ago the great unspoken question on the Palouse was this: "Is the Cougar offense really this weak?" Since then, it's been a steady climb back to respectability, with Saturday's workout an exclamation point on how well the O is clicking as they head into the season opener Friday evening at New Mexico.

Head coach Bill Doba had more praise for the offense and how they have played of late. The QBs and receivers, he noted, are really coming around. Given the youth at both those positions, consistency has been a bugaboo since workouts began Aug. 9. But all that has changed in the last week. Routes are more precise, balls aren't being dropped, reads are on target and missed assignments fewer and fewer.

Like the day before, Saturday was spent in large part with the first-team offense and defense going against the scout team that's running New Mexico schemes. The Lobos feature a capable offense, led by All-American candidate DonTrell Moore at running back (1,507 yards in '03).

On defense, the Lobos are always solid. They typically run a 3-3-5, disguising coverages beautifully and offering up every manner of blitz package known to mankind. Like the Cougars, their D only returns three starters. Over each of the last four seasons they been rated among the top 30 defenses in the country. Only Kansas State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas can make the same claim.

Doba said it's a definite bonus that the Cougars played the Lobos a year ago. It streamlines preparation, because the Cougs have a sense not just of the schemes New Mexico runs, but the tempo they bring to a game.

Defensive Coordinator Robb Akey said he and his troops are eager to get the season underway. "We need to be in the heat of battle against somebody else, deal with adversity, deal with foreign territory."

The Lobos have sold a school-record 14,889 season football tickets. A sellout crowd in excess of 37,000 is expected for Friday's nationally televised contest.

Senior DT Steve Cook returned to practice after resting some minor dings and even had an interception against the scout team. DB Tyron Brackenridge continues to rest a sore hamstring but is expected to return Monday.

The most entertaining part of practice came at the end when Akey fulfilled a lifelong dream: driving one of the John Deere tractors the equipment guys use. When Rogers Field was cleared, he hopped on and drove all-around with a huge smile on his face, stopping in front of the media to chat.

A familiar name and face will be suiting up for New Mexico on Friday: Senior QB Tali Ena of Prosser. The former Cougar, who transferred to New Mexico in 2002, is the Lobos' backup signal caller. Sophomore Kole McKamey will be the starter, but Ena is expected to run at least one series per game.

New Mexico is the only school in the country to increase its win total every year since 1999. The Lobos have gone from a 3-9 record in 1999 to 8-5 last season. They have played in two consecutive bowl games. Last season New Mexico lost three of four games – including the 23-13 decision to the Cougars -- to open the season, but then came on strong.

Paul Counts contributed to this report.

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