The Washington St. team Oregon St. will encounter Saturday night, and the stadium they encounter them in, will not be what Beaver Nation has become used to. These new Cougs have Connor Halliady at quarterback, and though he's a junior, and played both of the prior 2 seasons, its been a Jeff Tuel team that Oregon St. has prepared for.
It's also the first time in 4 years Beaver Nation has trekked to Martin Stadium in Pullman, as well as the second year of the Mike Leach "Air Raid" system.
To up to date on the Cougars, we got with Jeff Nusser from up at the Coug Center, one of the best sources for both news and analysis of everything Washington St. (they NEVER "Coug It" with the coverage!).
Thanks, Jeff, for taking time to talk Cougs with us!
Here's what Jeff wondered about, and what Robert and I had to say. Now, on to the Cougs.
BTD: Going into the California game, there was a question whether Connor Halliday would even play, much less be able to be effective or finish the game. He proceeded to turn in the most passing yards by a Pac-10/12 quarterback since 2005, though he was obviously in pain. What's his condition and assortment of bumps and bruises? He seems to have an ankle issue as well as groin and rib pains.
CC: He's happy and healthy! For the uninitiated, that's Mike Leach's standard response to any inquiry about a player's health.
What it means is that we likely won't know much about whether Halliday's condition has changed at all leading up to Saturday's game. It does seem to simply be a pain-threshold thing, given that he played on it the very next week, and we know all about his pain threshold -- you're likely to be reminded no less than a dozen times that Halliday once played three quarters of a game with a lacerated liver.
He mentioned after the game on Saturday that this is something he'll be dealing with "for a while," but the effect on him seemed pretty minimal. Then again, he was barely touched by the Cal pass rush.
BTD: It is notable that Halliday is still standing; signing up to play QB for the Cougs has come with a map to the local hospital in recent times.
Washington St. can pull within 1 game of becoming bowl eligible with a win Saturday night. Are the Cougs treating this as one of their biggest non-Apple Cup games in a long time? We've heard it will be a sell-out.
CC: Fans certainly are. As we look for games that the Cougs probably need to win to get to a bowl game, the remainder of the home games are prime candidates (with Utah and Arizona State -- on Halloween -- being the others). I don't know that anyone is looking at this as a probable victory, but they recognize that this is a great chance to get one at home against a team whose deficiencies WSU should be able to exploit. And yes, it's Dad's Weekend, which means it's a sell out. Expect a rowdy crowd on a cold Pullman night.
BTD: Stanford and California both threw the ball well against the Washington St. secondary, after it had played pretty well earlier in the season. And now they face Sean Mannion, who has thrown for more yards than anyone in the country so far. What if any adjustments can we expect to see Saturday night to try to shut him down, and recapture the edge they had?
CC: The standard answers will be "pressure is key," gotta be more assignment sound, blah, blah, blah. Really, I'm not sure there is a whole lot they can do. I do know that Stanford and Cal passed all over the defense in very different ways -- the Cardinal with play action, the Golden Bears with the Air Raid's death by a million cuts -- and that OSU is likely to do it in even a different way.
The Beavers seem much more vertical in their attack, and I honestly have no idea if that's better or worse for WSU. I guess it can't be worse after giving up 500 yards to an Air Raid on Saturday, right?
BTD: Gabe Marks leads the Washington St. receivers, statistically, but had a relatively quiet day against California. Will he return to prominence against the Beavers?
CC: The Air Raid is predicated on getting the ball to whoever is open. For much of the year, that has been Marks, but I got the sense that Cal purposed to pay a lot of attention to him, opening up the field for other guys -- Vince Mayle in particular.
He's a beast of a receiver, and Saturday was his coming out party. He and Dom Williams both play the X, and although Williams had a quiet day statistically, he drew a couple of crucial penalties. But Marks did make a tremendous play on a back shoulder fade, and he also was open a couple of other times deep, but he and Halliday just couldn't hook up.
BTD: Vince Mayle appears to be a major mismatch for almost any db in the conference, and he had a big day in Berkeley. But it was the first time he really had an attention gathering game. What's his story, and will he continue to emerge as one of Halliday's best targets?
CC: Mayle is a JC transfer, and as you know, those guys can sometimes take some time to get integrated into the offense. Throw in the fact that Mayle has only been playing football for a couple of years, and it's no surprise it took him half the year to really make an impact. He's really just scratching the surface of what he can be, and with his combination of size and speed, he's only going to get better. The outside receiver rotation of him, Marks and Williams is as lethal as you'll find in the Pac-12.
BTD: We realize the Washington St. rushing game is usually little more than a footnote, but there were a few good looking plays against Cal. Will coach Leach try to get some mileage out of the running game, now or ever?
CC: As noted before, the Air Raid takes what the defense gives it. If the defense doesn't give an honest nod to the rushing attack -- as determined by how many guys they put in the box -- then Halliday will check to a running play and try to gash the defense.
The problem is that in the past, WSU didn't have linemen who could ever win a battle. They do now. The guys up front still aren't world beaters, but they're good enough to take advantage of defensive fronts that are vulnerable to the run. So really, it all depends on how much attention OSU wants to pay to the run and whether they think they can stop the rushing attack in a hat-on-hat situation.
BTD: The Cougar defense has been pretty good against the run. What scheme is Washington St. using, and how has it improved this season.
CC: Coaches have a saying -- it's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmies and Joes. Although the Cougs are running a 3-4, the success ain't from scheme; what they're doing is a direct result of the three guys up front: Ioane Gauta, Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper. Gauta might be the most underrated player in the conference -- I'll be shocked if he's not playing on Sundays.
Those three guys control the line of scrimmage, freeing up the linebackers -- particularly middle linebacker Darryl Monroe, who hits like a bag of bricks -- to fly around and make tackles. This defensive line for WSU is very, very good, and the improvement this year has mostly been about added maturity.
BTD: Finally, what's the latest cool Coach Leach on a tangent story? We heard something about his taking on the feds on the subject of the government shutdown. And should we really put a pirate in charge of the economy?
CC: Well, he did take a few moments out of his weekly news conference last week to breakdown Popcorn Guy's form.
Personally, I found that much more interesting than making fun of politicians. Anyone can do that.
BTD: I loved "Popcorn guy"! But I don't think his form will work Saturday night in a sold out stadium; he appears to need several seats to spread out over!
Thanks, again, Jeff; looking forward to Saturday evening more than ever now!