Practice week rewind

PULLMAN -- The elevation of <b>Alex Brink</b> to starter after the injury to <b>Josh Swogger</b> is certainly the story getting the most ink in the days leading up to this Saturday's game. But there were a number of other plot lines on display this week in practice, any or all of whose protagonists could turn out to be just as critical in determining which team walks away with the 'W' at Reser Stadium.

It makes for a good story.

Local kid becomes the starter for the rest of the year and returns home to take on Oregon State, a school that didn't recruit him despite the fact he threw for nearly 4000 yards and was the state player of the year his senior year. It's also a focal point since Alex Brink plays quarterback, the position which always draws the most interest from fans and media alike. And yes, the play of Brink will undeniably go a long ways in determining who comes out on top in Saturday's tilt between the Cougars and the Beavers, but it's not the only storyline going.

THE WASHINGTON STATE DEFENSE, so compelling the first third of the season, has looked average at best the last two weeks. Headed into the fifth game of an 11-game slate, the Cougs were the 16th ranked defense in the nation. A fortnight later, they sit at 55th. This doesn't sit well with the coaches and players.

This week in practice, the defensive staff has dialed it up, they've been more intense throughout the practice sessions. The players have responded in kind.

If the Cougs are to return to form, the secondary will need to tighten up. Against Stanford, coach Bill Doba pointed out Jeremy Bohannon was hampered against the Cardinal as a back strain prevented him from practicing the week leading up to the game. That's not the case any longer. Bohannon has not only been practicing, he's been practicing well this week, the back seemingly not at issue.

As well as Aaron Johnson and Odell Howard have played at times, the line has missed DT Ropati Pitoitua. It's easy to forget, but Pitoitua is but a freshman. Just as easy to overlook, Pitoitua wasn't named the starter until midway through the fall camp. Doba said throughout the spring and much of the fall that tackle spot would probably be run by committee. But then Pitoitua went out and seized it with dominating play, play that stretched into the New Mexico and Colorado games until injury struck against the Buffaloes.

Although he returned last week, the big tackle isn't yet at full strength from the high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 2. That particular injury, apart from being an utterly misnomer, is one that simply takes a good long while to heal. In practice this week, Pitoitua has seemed a bit bothered by it at times. He's 6-foot-7 to begin with and the ankle may be detracting from his ability to get down low and achieve proper pad level.

It's inevitable Pitoitua will regain the explosiveness he displayed before the injury but whether that happens this week or down the road is anyone's guess.

BRINK HASN'T LOOKED LIKE a freshman this week in practice. Getting significant time with the No. 1s in the spring and fall camps, plus seeing extensive action against Colorado has obviously been beneficial. The coaches aren't going to simplify the offense because they don't have to -- Brink looks like he knows what he's doing out there. It's still important to realize he's a redshirt frosh about to get his first collegiate start -- but not knowing the offense isn't going to be a factor tomorrow.

What should help Brink is the return of Bienemann, either out or at less than full strength since the first half against Arizona with a severely bruised shin. The injury was bad enough that the junior has had a number of X-Rays over the last three weeks to rule out a fracture.

The good news is Bienemann returned to practice this week and did not seem at all bothered by the leg during the sessions. An afternoon of "catch and punishing run" by the 6-4, 245 pound tight end will go a long ways towards getting the Cougar offense moving this week.

Marty Martin returned to action last week from a shoulder separation but Michael Bumpus played the majority of the game. Doba doesn't like all the attention paid to who the starter is at a number of positions on this year's squad because playing time has been divided so equally at those spots -- he says it's therefore irrelevant who gets the start.

While Doba hasn't said who the starter will be at the slot, it would be a surprise if Oregon State doesn't see plenty of Bumpus, he's been running with the 1's all week.

Martin will undoubtedly see playing time as well but as Doba mentioned earlier in the week, the reason for Bumpus' increased playing time against Stanford had more to do with the way Bump was playing, rather than Martin coming off injury. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Martin could even get the "start", but all signs point to Bumpus on the field for the majority of plays. Not that that couldn't work to Martin's favor, having an opportunity to sneak a big catch or three in there against the Beavs if Bump heads to the sidelines for a rest.

Kevin McCall has received quite a few more reps this week, what with Chris Bruhn out with a knee and Allen Thompson doubtful with a left shoulder injury. McCall will back up Jerome Harrison and could see considerable playing time against the Beavs.

It was late in the game and Idaho's defense isn't nearly as stout as Oregon State's, but McCall displayed excellent cut back ability and a good burst against the Vandals, averaging 5 yards a pop in Week 3.

Jed Collins had his best game to date against Stanford, the big fullback springing Cougar tailbacks on a number of occasions. Collins' play, along with that of FB Brandon Asuega-Stark, will be something to watch for this Saturday as the running game looks to build on the 180-yard effort against the Cardinal last week. They'll have their hands full against a good defense in Oregon State, but the Cougs have done some things in practice this week that could bode well for Saturday.

Calvin Armstrong was named to participate in the East-West Shrine game, held in January. The game was the initiative of legendary Washington State coach Orrin E. Babe Hollingbery, an award bearing his name is presented to those who distinguish themselves during the contest.

After a slow start, the senior has been lights out, shutting down some pretty darned good players in Stanford's Julian Jenkins and the week previous, Pac-10 sack leader Devan Long from Oregon. This week, Armstrong figures to be matched up primarily with Bill Swancutt, one of the best defensive ends in the conference. It should be quite a battle.

Cougfan Top Stories