Bobcats' timing is perfect

THE SCHEDULING Gods were smiling on Ol' Wazzu when they penned in Division I-AA Montana State as this week's opponent. The Cougs, following Saturday's meltdown in Columbus, are physically and psychologically reeling. So the undermanned Bobcats figure to be the perfect tonic before conference play begins.

The Cougars are limping, literally and figuratively. Starting offensive tackle Josh Parish is out for six weeks with a broken leg, guard Phil Locker has a deep leg bruise and fellow OL Billy Knotts, has been suspended indefinitely apparently for fighting with star defensive tackle Rien Long on Sunday. Long also has been suspended. And defensive tackleJeremey Williams has a broken thumb.

Yes, the trip to Ohio State may have landed WSU a hefty $425,000 check, but it was a most costly endeavor. Besides the injuries, there are big-time frustrations that stem from the breakdowns --- in all facets --- that plagued the Cougars. Moreover, the national spotlight has swayed toward USC and Cal, with the Cougars plummeting to No. 16 in the AP poll and No. 18 in USA Today's coaches poll. Worse, questions about Jason Gesser have turned from whether he can win the Heisman to whether he'll ever produce in a big game.

So now, thankfully, come visitors from the Big Sky Conference. More used to playing schools named after saints and pioneering Texans, the Bobcats look to be ideal prey for getting WSU back on track before the Cougars head to Berkeley two weeks hence to take on the suddenly dangerous Golden Bears.

MSU is 2-1 this season, downing the likes of Adams State last weekend and St. Mary's in the opener. In between, they lost to Stephen F. Austin, 30-13, marking the tenth straight non-conference road loss for the Bozeman bunch.

Adding a bit of intrigue to the match up is the fact MSU has a new defensive assistant coach who knows well what to expect against WSU's one-back offense. It's John Rushing, a four-year starter at defensive back for the Cougars and a mainstay on the fabled Palouse Posse defense of 1994. He joined head coach Mike Kramer's staff as secondary coach this season after two at Boise State.

MSU is no match for the Cougars, but the ‘Cats are an improving team. Winless in 2000, they went 5-6 a year ago behind a stellar defense and are slated by most pundits for an upper-division Big Sky finish this year with 16 returning starters.

BOBCATS TO WATCH: Quarterback Tyler Thomas, the Pride of Prosser, tossed for 252 yards and two TDs against the Cougars a year ago. Last week against Division II Adams State, though, he was a woeful 6-21 for 99 yards and was benched in the second half in favor of true freshman Travis Lulay. Kramer assures, however, that Thomas --- the ninth-most prolific passer in MSU history --- will start against the Cougars. (By the way, if anyone knows where Adams State is located, feel free to drop us an email.)

Also back for the ‘Cats is standout running back Ryan Johnson, who rattled off 116 yards against WSU last season. In this year's opener he pounded out 216 hashes to set a school record and now ranks fourth on MSU's all-time rushing and TDs list.

On defense, strong safety Kane Ioane of Billings is a head cracker, cornerback Joey Thomas of Seattle is stout in coverage and transfers Kenny Qualls (free safety) and Jason Nicastro (tackle) are turning heads.

HISTORY: The Cougars are 6-0 lifetime against the ‘Cats. That includes a hard-fought, 53-28 victory in Pullman a year ago when MSU agreed to fill a hole in the Cougar schedule following the post-9/11cancellation of the Colorado match up. Montana State scorched the Cougars for 247 yards in kick returns, piled up 306 of their 440 total yards on the ground and actually led for a time. WSU's star of the day was running back John Tippins, who came within six yards of the first-ever double-double in Cougars history --- he carried the ball 24 times for 100 yards and caught five passes for 94. He also scored four touchdowns.

THE LINE: In the stratosphere.

THE GAME: Saturday, 2 p.m. PT kickoff Martin Stadium

TV: No live coverage, but Fox Sports Northwest will air the replay Sunday at 10 am PT.

THE COACHES: Kramer, in his third season at MSU, is 8-19. Counting his previous, stellar work at EWU his overall coaching mark is 45-51. Saint Mike is 75-76 at WSU, 121-120 overall.

THE HOME BOYS: Two Cougars hail from Montana --- QB Matt Kegel(Havre) and LB Doc Farley (Hamilton). And a mountain of Bobcats are from the Evergreen State: QB Tyler Thomas (Prosser), linebacker Blake Wolfe (Colton); cornerback Joey Thomas (Seattle/Kennedy), running back Roger Cooper (Port Orchard/South Kitsap), defensive lineman Marcus Baley (Port Orchard/South Kitsap), tight end Ryan Cogley (Cheney), linebacker Brandon Eggart (Cheney – and the nephew of former WSU hoops and track great Jeanne Eggart), receivers Brandon Bassett (Colville), Kellen Alley (Bremerton) and Corey Smith (Federal Way/Decatur), and offensive lineman Joe Hirst of Spokane (East Valley) .

Notable Notes:

* Cougar tight ends have yet to catch a pass this season. That's one of the most puzzling stats of 2002 because assistant Cougar coaches spent time at BYU in the off-season expressly to study how to better involve the TE in the spread offense.

* The most misleading stat from the WSU-Ohio State game was third-down conversion efficiency. The Cougars were 8 of 16, the Buckeyes 3 of 11. The most telling state from the game was time of possession. The Buckeyes had an eight minute advantage. The second-most telling stat was the whopping 19 collective tackles registered by Cougar DBs Virgil Williams and Erik Coleman --- a stat that begs one question: What happened to the linebackers?

* Before coming to MSU, Kramer had a 37-32 record in six seasons with Eastern Washington, finishing his stint with 30-17 run. In 1997, EWU finished 12-2, won the Big Sky Title and advanced to the NCAA Division I-AA semifinal game.

* The Bobcats' last non-conference road win came in 1995 at Cal Poly, 13-10.

* The health of Cougar LB Will Derting (ankle) and receiver Jerome Riley (hamstring), both hurt against Idaho, is uncertain for Saturday's game.

* With Rien Long suspended and Jeremey Williams hurt, look for DTs Tomasi Kongaika, Tai Tupai and perhaps Steve Cook to join DEs Issac Brown, D.D. Acholonu and Fred Shavies in prime time on Saturday. On offense, with Josh Parrish and Billy Knotts out and Phil Locker ailing, look for Sam Lightbody and touted redshirt freshman Riley Fitt-Chappell to see some serious PT. Lightbody, by the way, is nursing a broken hand from the season opener.

* Heisman Watching: Statistically, at least, Gesser's outlook isn't all that bad. After three weeks, he's 58 of 89 for 709 yards, 4 TDs and 3 INTs.

That compares with Hurricane Ken Dorsey's 44 of 80 for 626 yards, 9 TDs and 4 INTs; Maarshall's Byron Leftwich's 58 of 90 for 875 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT; Texas' Chris Simms' 30 of 56 for 404 yards, 5 TDs, and zero INTs; and Rex Grossman's (Florida) 53 of 102 for 710 yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs. Of course, Ohio State back Maurice Clarett is the new name on the block following his thundering work on the Cougars. He's on pass to hit the 1,000-yard mark in three weeks.

Cougfan Top Stories