QB uncertainty, but oh <br>that D is something

SEATTLE — It hung in the air over Qwest Field like a bad stink. A receiving corps with a nasty case of the dropsies. A leaky offensive line and moribund ground game. Atrocious special teams play. And – dare we say it? – the biggest quarterback controversy this side of Montlake. Yet amid all that disarray swirling around Cougar football, a guy who's made a handsome career specializing in defense says Washington State's stop corps has the talent to carry this team unblemished through the Pac-10.

Well maybe not counting the lads from Troy, he cautioned, but certainly the rest.

Looking dapper in black slacks and matching turtle neck, Craig Bray, Colorado's secondary coach, was unequivocal in his praise.

"The Cougars will be fine. They're playing great defense and have a great coaching staff. With a defense like that, there's always the potential to run the table," he said after his Buffs escaped with a 20-12 victory. "Except for USC, everyone is so doggone competitive with each other, it often comes down to – just like today – who makes that one big play."

Not sure which of Colorado's half-dozen big plays he was referring to as the one, but facts are facts: Bray knows defense and he knows the Pac-10.

As a Cougar assistant coach once-upon-a-time, he helped mold WSU's fabled Palouse Posse in 1994 and was there working more magic in 1997 when the Cougs won the Pac-10 title. As Dennis Erickson's defensive coordinator at Oregon State, he presided over one of the conference's stingiest Ds for three seasons before trying to save John Mackovic from himself at Arizona a year ago.

"Robb (Akey) has brought a pressuring attitude to that defense," Bray says of WSU's second-year defensive coordinator. "And the skill level of those players is impressive. They're doing one helluva a job. They're fun to watch – I probably shouldn't say that as an opponent, but they are."

So true. Washington State's defense was a treat to the eyes of the 56,188 crimson faithful who poured into downtown Seattle on Saturday.

The D legitimately owned just three of Colorado's points -- a 52-yard field goal by Mason Crosby in the first quarter. They allowed the Buffs only 125 net yards and seven first downs. Colorado converted just 3-of-17 third-down plays. The Cougars' single defensive miscue – letting Bobby Purify break loose for a 65-yard run in the first quarter – was forgiven when the play was called back on a holding penalty.

But as good and the defense was, it couldn't overcome the stumbles by the offense and special teams. Among the badinage:

• Missing two field goals and a muffing the placement on a third attempt.
• Allowing two blocked punts, one recovered by Colorado in the endzone for a TD.
• Recovering a fumbled Buffalo punt return deep in Colorado territory only to have it called back by a holding penalty.
• Giving up a 59-yard kickoff return that set up a Crosby field goal that put the Buffs up by eight, 20-12, with 4:42 left in the game.
• Surrendering eight sacks.
• Telegraphing a pass that Joe Sanders picked off and took 51 yards to paydirt, putting Colorado ahead 17-6 with just more than nine minutes left in the game. It was Alex Brink's first collegiate interception.
• Fumbling away a game-tying opportunity at the Colorado 2-yard line with one minute left in regulation. Colorado recovered. "I was trying to hit Troy (Bienemann) in the endzone but he was doubled," said Brink. "I checked down. I thought I was going in … I didn't cover the ball."

And, of course, there were those dropped passes. Six in the first quarter alone. A small survey of reporters after the game, in search of the total number, produced only words:

"A dozen?" asked one. "I lost count," offered another. "A bunch," guessed a third. "Good question," said a fourth.

Those drops were the focus of some of head coach Bill Doba's post-game comments. Asked if they hurt starting QB Josh Swogger's confidence, he said, "I don't know, but it sure did mine."

Swogger finished the day completing a woeful six of 27 passes for 77 yards. Brink was 12-for-23 for 251 yards.

Doba added that he's not sure the receivers were responsible for all the drops. "He (Swogger) started rushing his passes and winging them in at 90 miles per hour. They're difficult things to catch at that velocity. If you're off target at all it's tough to catch," he said, noting that Brink throws a softer ball.

That's one reason why he inserted Brink at one point in the second quarter and then again for good part way through the second half.

Doba said he won't name a starter for next week's contest against Idaho until analyzing game film.

Despite Brink's critical interception and fumble, the talk about him in the two locker rooms after the game focused on the positives. Colorado's Gary Barnett commented on his "escapability." Bill Doba said his wheels and vision remind him of Jason Gesser. Receiver Marty Martin called him "very composed, very mature -- he knew what to do."

So who should start next week?

When the question was put to Bray, he answered like the seasoned veteran he is: "Absolutely no way I'm going to comment on that. But I will tell you that they have young wideouts who are going to get better."

Colorado players were less concerned with political decorum when queried about the Cougar quarterbacking situation.

Cornerback Tyron Henderson, the guy who blocked the punt that put the Buffs up 10-3, didn't hesitate. "Number 9 (Swogger) is tough," he said. "His receivers dropped a lot of balls. That's hard for a quarterback."

Defensive end James Garee counters with Brink. "Dropback passers (like Swogger) can pick you apart if they have the time, but we put an emphasis on getting to the quarterback and most of the guys on the defensive line got sacks. The other guy (Brink) gave us more problems once we lost containment on him."

There was also a split between two Buff offensive linemen who watched the alternating QBs from the sidelines.

"I'd go with number 10 (Brink)," said Gary Moore. "Even with all the pressure he didn't lose his composure. And he didn't mind taking a hit." Brian Daniels said he'd stick with Swogger. "He's the starter. A lot of plays just looked like the receivers and quarterback were on the wrong page. That can be fixed in practice."

While the future at QB is uncertain, Doba was definitive about one thing: "We're going to have to start playing a helluva a lot better than we played today."

The lackluster performance of the offense overshadowed a stellar day by sophomore Cougar receiver Jason Hill. He caught six passes for 206 yards. One – Brink's first-ever TD pass -- covered 60 yards and narrowed the score to 17-12. Another – a spectacular, 40-yard Hail Mary from Brink – brought the Cougars to the Buffalo 5-yard-line with some 25 seconds left to play. Hill also made two nice stops on punt coverage.

Robb Akey had praise for young defensive tackles Aaron Johnson and Odell Howard, who were thrust into full-time duty when starters Steve Cook (knee) and Ropati Pitoitua (ankle) left with injuries. Johnson, who stands 6-6 and weighs 303 pounds, moves like a linebacker and wears a fullback's number (40). When he blocked a Colorado field goal attempt in the second quarter, Akey literally did a summersault in his excitement. Ropati was in the midst of a great day when he left at the 9:15 mark of the third quarter. He had a sack, recovered a fumble and forced another. He's expected to play next week, but Cook is questionable.

When Brink was called on to relieve Swogger, the Cougars' offensive co-captain, "Josh came over and said good luck, just like any great team leader would do," said Brink.

Freshman kicker Loren Langley made the first two field goals of his college career, from 44 and 35 yards.

Outside linebacker Scott Davis was WSU's top tackler with eight stops – two of them behind the line of scrimmage. Safety Jeremy Bohannon had six tackles and an interception.

Representatives from the Fiesta and Tangerine bowls attended the game.

At least four Cougar grid alums were on the field visiting with players before kickoff: Adam Holiday, Drew Dunning, Sammy Moore and Jack Thompson.

Good news, bad news: The Cougars have not given up a first-half touchdown in eight of their last 15 games. But the offense has produced just three rushing first downs so far this season.

WSU is now 1-1 on the season, Colorado is 2-0.

Cougfan Top Stories