One of the things I miss about the 2010 and '11 teams is the Sure Victory. The games where you knew there was no way -- no way in the world -- that the game would even be close. Even though those games are gone for now, it's difficult to complain about a team that's 5-2 and poised to make a run towards 7-2 before facing its next ranked opponent.
But as I said, no win is promised. The Washington State Cougars come to town in desperation mode. They've lost four straight games, two to the ranked Oregon schools, but that streak includes a disturbing 35-34 loss to Colorado, the worst team in the Pac-12, and another to Cal, the team that Stanford just destroyed. The Cougars sit at 2-5 and are yet to win a conference game, but players are still talking about winning four of their last five games and qualifying for a bowl game. Quarterback Jeff Tuel has reclaimed the starting job he lost earlier this season, and spoke with confidence earlier this week. "A bowl game still isn't out of reach, believe it or not. People from the outside looking in can say it is, but it's not with us. With the position I'm in it's my job to take us there, and I'm going to keep believing until it's out of reach."
Even a loss to the Cardinal won't technically put it out of reach, but it would certainly start the music playing on Washington State's season. This is head coach Mike Leach's first season in Pullman, and though I haven't heard any reports of him locking players in closets, but I have to believe the expectations were a bit higher for him and his high-octane Air Raid offense.
The Cougs have been throwing the ball with success, averaging 322.3 yards per game in the air, good for ninth in the nation, but their rushing attack has been predictably anemic. Of even greater concern, however, is their run defense. Two weeks ago they allowed Cal to rush for 318 yards; last week Cal managed less than one percent of that total (three yards) against Stanford.
So looking into my crystal ball, here's what I see: Stanford runs the ball about 50 times, and Stepfan Taylor gets 30 of those carries while gaining somewhere in the neighborhood of 195 yards. Back up tailback Remound Wright might even have a big day with 40 or 50 yards of his own. Stanford 31, Washington State 10.
Then again, what do I know? I can really only tell you one side of the story. For the Cougar side, I checked in with one of GMC's oldest friends, Lucas Nurmi of the WSU Football Blog, who drops some serious Cougar knowledge. (As usual, you can read my answers to his questions about the Cardinal over on his site.) Read on...
I know we're only half way through the year, but how are Washington State fans feeling about Mike Leach? I have to believe that expectations were higher than this going into the season, but is the fan base willing to be patient? What signs have there been that the program is going in the right direction?
WSU Football Blog:
Well I think the Mike Leach honeymoon officially ended as Jordan Webb snuck into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown on 4th and Goal from the 4 yard line to cap our 17 point 4th Quarter collapse back on September 22nd. His perplexing decision to go for it on 4th down with about 8:30 to go in the game, with a 17 point lead, from about the 18 yard line, only to have Halliday throw an interception really emphasized the second guess of Leach’s playing calling after some similar calls the week before at UNLV. While I think the long term upside with Leach is very evident, this brings me to your next question about team expectations. Last season, with our back-up, immobile quarterback running the offense, we had the #9 passing attack in the country. It was a simple conclusion to reach that with our starting QB returning, an All American at WR, and a lot of other young, albeit talented WRs, plus the hiring of an offensive guru like Leach who is known for chucking the ball, that we would put up a lot of points this season. I also think the athletic department did a fantastic job building enthusiasm, at the sake of overselling what to expect on the field this year. Which they had to do to bring in dollars and sell season tickets (which they accomplished in spades).
Jeff Tuel had a breakout season in 2010, suffered through injuries (I believe) in 2011, and lost his starting job after a couple weeks this year to Connor Halliday. Tuel will be starting again this week. What's going on there? Who do you think should be behind center?
Lots going on here. It’s interesting you ask this, because I loved the benching of Halliday and then loved Tuel getting his job back. After Tuel got hurt in Week 2 against Eastern Washington, Halliday stepped in and it looked like the Air Raid was catching on (see 4 TD passes in the first half of his first start and a 3.5 quarter performance vs Colorado that was impressive). Tuel’s decision making looked a bit slow and his ball seemed to lack zip, which is the exact opposite of what we had in Tuel. He is a senior and Halliday is the future face of our offense, so why not let him get the reps with Tuel not looking good? Then when the competition ramped up against Oregon, Oregon State and Cal, Halliday was getting read like a book by DBs and turning the ball over more than Keith Price. I hate flip flopping decisions like this, but have been happy with Tuel of late.
The Stanford defense has been great this year, but they've historically had trouble with fast paced spread offenses, notably Arizona, who piled up 48 points and 617 total yards against the Cardinal. What can we expect to see this Saturday? I'm sure Leach's Air Raid offense isn't quite up to speed yet, but how close is it? Who can we expect to play well?
Leach’s offense seemed to take shape in Weeks 3-5 with decent outputs against UNLV, Colorado and Oregon, but has sputtered the last two games combining for only 23 points against Oregon State and Cal, leavings at least 30 points on the field in those two games combined with missed opportunities and poor execution. The offense isn’t too fast paced yet, my guess is it’s about 75% of the speed Leach would like it to operate, once it’s a well oiled machine. I would expect Tuel to throw 55+ attempts and hang 350 yards on your defense, but without any threat on the ground, all you have to do is drop 8 into coverage, and you will have your way with us. At least, that’s what everybody seems to be doing so far this year, with a pretty decent degree of ease.
The Washington State defense currently ranks 80th against the run, allowing just over 175 yards per game. Meanwhile, the Cardinal have been fairly inconsistent running the ball. Who needs to play well for the Cougars for their defense to be successful on Saturday?
Honestly, aside from Oregon and Cal (600+ combined yards rushing) our defense has actually been, dare I say stout, against the run at times. To be honest, in my opinion, we need two things to occur for our defense to be successful. The first is we have a tendency to make our first contact within a yard or two of the LOS on running plays, but then cannot finish the tackle or allow the RB to keep churning for an additional 3 or 4 yards on first and second downs. So the first key is to finish our tackles around the line, and the second is for our DBs to defend on third and short (hell, or long for that matter), to get the unit off the field.
What's your realistic prediction here? What has to happen for the Cougs to pull the upset?
I won’t believe in Cougar upsets until I see one on the field, especially on the road, against a top ranked team, which we haven’t pulled off since we dismantled Oregon in 2003. Maybe I am a bit jaded and not like the 60 year old WSU fan who has seen decades of mediocre football. We won 20 games the first two years I was a student and went to the Rose Bowl and knocked off #5 Texas the following season in the Holiday Bowl, and 2004-2006 was marred with so many close calls, we easily could have added another 20 wins those three seasons combined if we didn’t get out of our own way. I held expectations far too high for this team from 2007-2010, always thinking we were better than we played. Well, what’s the Albert Einstein definition of insanity?? So I’ve just lowered my expectations across the board and the result is a much less stressful life I lead. I see Stanford eating clock and getting up big, early, only to have Tuel chuck a trio of 4th quarter TDs like he did in 2010 down in Palo Alto. I’m thinking something like 42-24.
Finally, a fun one. Please explain why I see a Washington State flag flying behind ESPN's College Game Day set EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY?
Back in 2003, when we were relevant on the national scene, alum Tom Pounds started showing up with handheld signs at ESPN College Gameday asking for them to come to Pullman. He then began a grassroots effort that shipped Ol Crimson and Whitey to the Gameday location each week, to be hoisted by alums in the area. Whitey has since been retired and donated to Steve Gleason’s foundation, Team Gleason, and one of their motto’s is No White Flags. Gleason was a Cougar LB in the late 90s and is most famous for his blocked punt on Monday Night Football in the Saints first Post-Katrina game in the Super Dome. Last year, Gleason made public his battle with ALS. That being said we still have Ol' Crimson and now hoist a Gray Flag in place of Whitey. I want to say we made it 100 consecutive weeks of College Gameday late in 2010, and it’s a streak I don’t see ending anytime soon. The athletic department and university have incorporated the flag into a variety of marketing and promotional efforts, including handing out mini flags at home games, having every member of the team run out the tunnel carrying a flag each Homecoming, to incorporating the “Will you wave the flag for Cougar Athletics?” in their donor pitch, to television, radio and direct mail marketing. Say what you will about the state of Cougar football and the close mindedness of our fans to fundraising the last decade, but there is no denying our Cougar Spirit!