After a slow 1-2 start for the Beavers, they now face their toughest test of the year with a road trip to Pullman. The Cougars are 2-0 after a three overtime, 47-44 win over Boise State last week. To gain a better insight on Mike Leach, Luke Falk, and the rest of Wazzu, we chatted with Jeff Nusser of CougCenter.com
1. WSU pulled off a crazy comeback win over Boise last week, but what were the issues that put them down by 21 with ten minutes left to play?
Mostly timidity within the offense — the Cougs were halfway through the fourth quarter before they scored their first offensive touchdown, which is almost incomprehensible. Because of that, Mike Leach did the unthinkable in the third quarter and benched a healthy Luke Falk in favor of backup Tyler Hilinski. Teams have taken to flooding the passing pattern with a lot of defensive backs against Falk to try and paralyze his progressions and bait him into simply taking dump-offs to the running backs, and it’s been working. WSU’s offense even gave up a touchdown on a scoop-and-score. It was bad, and had the Cougs gone on to lose the game, the blame would have been placed squarely at Luke Falk’s feet.
However, there’s another factor that’s getting a bit less pub: The running game was surprisingly ineffective for the second consecutive week. Leach suggested at his Monday news conference that his linemen were just a little soft; their inability to open holes for our talented running backs also was a big reason why the offense was repeatedly stalling out.
2. Should we read anything into Luke Falk being benched and then injured against Boise State, resulting in a huge performance from Tyler Hilinski?
Well, yeah — Leach isn’t going to sit by and watch the Air Raid be hamstrung by a quarterback who refuses to take the car out of second gear, and nobody is above that. Even the guy who now owns every major passing record in WSU history. On Monday, Leach said he benched Falk because he “wanted Luke to see how easy it was out there.” And to some degree, that proved to be true — Hilinski immediately found receivers in intermediate routes to pick up chunk yardage. Falk came back in, was no better than before, got injured (we think?), and then Hilinski came back in and more or less picked up where he left off, gouging the Broncos through the air.
Now, I think most fans still believe Falk is their best chance at big time success this year. Besides, he’s led us to a bunch of big wins, and he decided to stick around for another season rather than heading off to the NFL, so fans really want to give him every benefit of the doubt. There’s definitely some sentimentality there, and we’re glad he’s starting this game. Also, it seems like playing OSU is the perfect recipe to get well — he’s torched the Beavers in his previous three outings against them, and their defense seems ... uh ... susceptible. However, if Falk struggles again versus Oregon State — and by struggles, I mostly mean plays passively against soft coverages — I think that people will lose patience pretty quickly.
3. What's the biggest key to slowing down this Wazzu passing offense that's averaging 397 yards per game?
If OSU can continue to make Falk stand there and stare without throwing the ball, they’re well on their way. The thing with Falk is that rather than getting faster and more decisive within the offense — which you would expect from someone with 30 starts — he seems to be getting slower and increasingly indecisive, often scanning the field for upwards of five or six seconds before either dumping it off or taking a sack. This has always been a criticism of him — that he holds the ball for too long — but the grumbling is definitely getting louder about it, especially as Leach has now basically endorsed fans’ complaints with his words and deeds.
Although, maybe if you do that, Hilinski comes back in and shreds you, so ... I don’t know if OSU can slow down the passing attack for the entire game.
4. Defensively, WSU's first two games were pretty different from one another. What's your take on where that group is?
Real happy with where the defense is right now — shutting out a bad FCS team then following it up with giving up just 24 points in regulation to a what I think is a good mid-major offense is nice step forward from last season. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has been working to build a unit that is fast and aggressive, and that’s exactly what they were in the first two games. The defensive line has attacked to the degree that they’ve been incredibly disruptive to what opponents want to do, and the linebackers have been sure tacklers. They’re lighter than your typical Pac-12 defense, so we’re still not sure exactly what we’re going to get when some of the bigger opponents in Pac-12 play come around. But for now, I think the defense has been a bit better than expected.
5. What's the ceiling for this year's team, in your opinion?
Pac-12 Championship. Why not? Leach’s last two teams have gotten much better as the season progressed, and I like the baseline from which we’re currently working — 2-0 with room for improvement.
6. What's your final score prediction for this game?
I have a hard time imagining it doesn’t get real ugly after the way Leach voiced his displeasure with the offense this week. Let’s go 48-17, WSU.