Don't look now but the Washington State Cougars are playing to keep pace in the Pac-12 North! Actually for us in Beaver Nation this should not come too much as a surprise in that the Cougs have given Oregon State fits over the last few years, especially in Corvallis.
The game is a very big for Washington State, not only will it be homecoming for the Pullman campus but WSU is coming off a huge 2OT 45 to 38 win over Oregon at Autzen.
So what are some of the feelings about the upcoming WSU vs. OSU game from the Washington State side of things? We at Building the Dam posed some questions to CougCenter (see also the BtD responses to the CougCenter's questions about the upcoming game here), and their answers are below.
Thank you CougCenter and let's dive right in!
BtD: Coach Mike Leach said before the season that the Cougs would run more this season, and the Ducks found out he wasn't kidding. Despite popular comments to the contrary, we know he has tried to do that before, but wasn't all that successful, and doubtless had to abandon it at times. What, or who, has been the difference this season that has resulted in the rushing game being successful to an unprecedented level in the Leach era?
CougCenter: It’s a combination of what it’s usually a combination of -- improved line play and upgraded talent at running back. Leach is fond of saying that when he arrived at WSU, he had just a few scholarship-quality linemen on the entire roster with an average weight of well under 300 pounds; we now have a large, deep and experienced line that is one of the team’s strengths. Then you add a trio of running backs -- Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington -- who each bring different dynamics in terms of speed, power and elusiveness, and suddenly the Cougs can move the ball on the ground again.
The interesting thing, though, is that until Oregon, the team had gone away from the run in the second halves of games. The offense sure seems to be more effective when it’s running that ball at least 25 percent of the time, so that will be something to keep an eye on this weekend.
BtD: Luke Falk made his first start last year at Oregon State, and led a come from behind 4th quarter win. Despite popular quarterback competition talk in the off-season, he's been the starter since day 1 this year, and had arguably his best game ever last week in leading the Coug's comeback win at Oregon. (Falk seems to be at his best in the Willamette Valley; perhaps the Beavers or Ducks should have considered him.) Is the rest of the conference in for 2 1/2 more years of Falk rewriting the record books with games like those two? Or are there flaws in his game that the Beavers should exploit that can bring him down to earth? What would they be?
CougCenter: He’s pretty darn good, and he’s getting better. One of the more interesting things about him for opposing fans is that he’s really the opposite of Connor Halliday in terms of his approach to throwing the ball. Connor wasn’t afraid to try and fit a ball into a tight window downfield, sometimes making ill-advised 50-50 throws, and a big part of increasing his Air Raid effectiveness was getting some of his risky tendencies reined in; Falk approaches the game in a much more cautious way. He generally takes safer throws underneath, you’ll rarely see him throw a ball up for grabs, and he’ll sometimes hold onto the ball for what seems like forever waiting for something to develop as the pocket collapses around him. The result is an increased amount of sacks -- opponents are sacking Falk on 6 percent of his dropbacks compared to just 3.5 percent for Halliday -- but a pretty dramatic drop in interceptions (just two against 15 touchdowns).
That said, he’s started to push the ball a bit more aggressively downfield, and with strong results -- he’s still being smart with the ball, but now WSU is getting some more explosive plays. If Oregon State wants to limit his production, the best shot is to confuse him with coverages so that he holds onto the ball a little bit and then make sure you get home. Because WSU is so adept at throwing the ball, getting "behind schedule" isn’t a death knell to any drive (the Cougs converted a 3rd-and-21 on their game-tying drive against Oregon), but it’s generally the best way to get WSU off the field.
BtD: We discussed in your questions Oregon State's running the ball, and the possibility of Storm Woods being a factor. Though they ultimately lost in double overtime, Oregon did run for over 400 yards on Washington State, and Royce Freeman in particular, with over 220 yards, had a field day. That has to be concerning up on the Palouse; what will the Cougs do to address that problem this week?
CougCenter: Tackling has been kind of a mixed bag. The linebackers are strong, but the safeties are spotty, so I imagine that continues to be an emphasis. That said, while Woods is a nice back, he’s not Royce Freeman, and I don’t think the Cougs will have quite the issues tackling Woods that they had with Freeman -- they showed very well against Cal’s running backs the week before, so I tend to think it was more of a "Royce Freeman is one of the best backs in the country" issue more than a WSU issue. The key for WSU likely will be what it’s always been for any team looking to stop the run -- control the line of scrimmage and free up the linebackers to make plays. If they’re able to do that, I figure it will be a pretty long day for OSU.
BtD: Special teams has been the Cougs' Achilles heel, and at the same time, the Beavers haven't been able to get much going in the return game. It would seem like that's an area that could change the narrative of the game for both teams on Saturday. What have the Cougs been doing lately about special teams, and how do you see that aspect of the game affecting the game this week?
CougCenter: Well, they sucked a lot less against Oregon, which is highly encouraging. I don’t know that they’ve being "doing" anything other than trying to be more disciplined, and last week was a step in the right direction on that front. The crazy thing has been that it hasn’t been just one thing that’s been a problem -- every aspect of special teams has struggled at some point. Last week was the closest it’s been to coming together, and it’ll be interesting to see if the progress is legitimate.
BtD: Without getting too far into the frustrating outings Washington State had against Portland State (although the Vikings it turns out are pretty good after all) and California (also a pretty good team that I know Coug fans felt they beat, but didn't get the win against), were there things PSU and the Bears did, or other aspects to their teams, that had a lot to do with how those games turned out that Rutgers and Oregon were unable to exploit? Could those issues arise again?
CougCenter: Oddly enough, I expect OSU to be similar stylistically to Portland State -- the Vikings employed a run-heavy attack with everything flowing through the QB, who also was a running threat. The Cougs played pretty scared that day and were on their heels in the second half, and while that likely won’t be the case on Saturday, I’d be surprised if OSU didn’t try to give WSU some of the same kind of looks to try and get them out of their gap assignments and out of position to make tackles. The Beavers might find some success that way.
BtD: Though they haven't all been happy memories for either team, it seems like there is something memorable about every game in the last decade in this rivalry, from comebacks to record setting outings, and upsets and all manner of weather, plus key injuries and popcorn dumping in the Clink. What unexpected event do you expect (this is the Pac-12, where the unexpected is expected!) will make this year memorable for years to come?
CougCenter: If I expected it, it wouldn’t be unexpected, now would it?