Playing the R-card

IF YOU TRY HARD enough, you can almost hear Aretha Franklin bellowing R-E-S-P-E-C-T across the rolling hills of the Palouse these day. Well, not quite, but the tone of Cougar workouts and team meetings this week has definitely had a respectful flavor --- as in lack of. Whether it's real or imagined, WSU coaches and players are finding that they're being dissed left and right as their Pac-10 opener with Cal draws near.

A lackluster second half against Ohio State two weeks ago, coupled with Jason Gesser's sore ribs, apparently has people jumping off the crimson bandwagon en masse. Oddsmakers are giving a lean to the Golden Bears, The Seattle Times sees Cal winning by a field goal, and Bear QB Kyle Boller, winless in three career starts against the Cougars, says his arm is ripe for a 400-yard passing day.

And so it is that Mike Price & Co. are playing the R-card in their preparations for Saturday's 2 pm kickoff in Strawberry Canyon between the two 3-1 clubs.

Respect. Either you have it or you don't. And the talk in Pullman is that the No. 16-ranked Cougars are being looked upon like day-old pasteries.

By all accounts, the players are buying in -- in a big way. The intensity of workouts has been good. "These guys want to prove themselves. They're ready to go at it," one observer told Cougfan.com on Thursday.

Confidence was no doubt buoyed yesterday when Gesser took a few practice snaps and made some tosses and looked good doing it. Back up Matt Kegel, nursing a sore knee, also looked sharp in limited in action.

Price is keeping mum on who will start Saturday. The word in Pullman is that Gesser -- who will be sporting a flak jacket --- is at about 75 percent of normal and Kegel close to 90 percent. And just in case, No. 3 Chris Hurd, a redshirt freshman, has been getting the vast majority of reps with the first-team.

The injuries to Gesser and Kegel have raised the question of whether the Cougars might have to consider burning touted Josh Swogger's redshirt if Hurd also goes down and the top two are hobbled beyond reason.

Price has only burned a freshman QB's redshirt one time -- with Drew Bledsoe in 1990. Speculation is that Price would probably first look to senior receiver Collin Henderson to fill the void. With a completion at Ohio State two weeks ago, Henderson is now 9-for-9 on gadget play passes in his Cougar career, with the majority of those tosses going for TDs. He also comes from good signal calling blood lines --- dad Jerry Henderson started for the Cougars in the 1960s.

THE INJURY BUG in Pullman is so bad that at least five guys were spotted at practice yesterday wearing walking leg casts: LBs Will Derting and Donnie Jackson, TE Adam West, and OLs Phil Locker and Josh Parrish.

West's ankle woes, coupled with fellow tight end Troy Bienemann's bum shoulder, has found Cougar offensive cooridnator Mike Levenseller calling on the services of defensive end Adam Braidwood to be the Cougars' second tight end in goal-line packages. It makes sense. Braidwood, a true freshman, played TE in high school, is agile as all get out, and loves to hit.

Redshirt junior Mark Ahlberg will be the starting TE in standard offensive sets, with JC tranfser Eddie Robinson backing him up. Robinson missed August workouts and is still learning the Cougars' complicated TE blocking assignments, so his value for Saturday could be nominal.

CAL'S DEFENSIVE coordinator, former Cougar player Bob Gregory, was Boise State's d-coordinator last year when the Cougars played the Broncos. In that game he fed Gesser a steady diet of zone blitzes. He's running a similar D at Cal, so look for more of the same Saturday --- particularly given the success Ohio State had against WSU with the zone blitzes.

Helping blunt that onslaught, though, will be a guy who wasn't suited up last week against Montana State: OL Billy Knotts. He and DE Rien Long are back in action after serving a one-game suspension for undisclosed conduct unbecoming a Crimson Soldier.


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