Series Record: Stanford leads, 37-25-1
Harbaugh/Shaw Era: Stanford leads, 5-1
Last Season: Stanford 24, WSU 17
This Season: September 28th at Pullman
With only 42 wins in the past ten seasons -- and with 30 of those victories coming from 2003-2007 -- things have been grim in Pullman for quite some time. Head coach Mike Leach arrived last season, bringing along with him a truckload of baggage and his Air Raid offense, and the hope was that he could turn the program around. Well, Leach didn't lock any players in closets, but he did manage to find controversy again as a star player quit the team amidst accusations of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse suffered at the hands of the WSU coaching staff. While those allegations were eventually proved false and the player recanted his statement, some saw the incident as proof that the Leach hiring was not working.
Looking at the Cougars' on-field performance, it's easy to reach the same conclusion. After opening the season 2-1 with a loss to BYU and wins over Eastern Washington and UNLV, everything fell apart as the Cougs lost eight consecutive games, cementing their position as the worst team in the Pac-12. The interesting thing about WSU, however, is that aside from a 35-34 heartbreaker against Colorado, the only other game they really had a chance to win during that nine-week stretch came against Stanford. Go figure.
This season the Cardinal will have to travel to the Paloose to take on the Cougs. For a closer look at the 2013 team, I've called on not one, but two experts on Washington State football -- the mysteriously named Coug-A-Sutra, from the WSU Football Blog, and Lucas Nurmi, formerly of the same blog. (There have been reports of lingering tension between the two, stemming, no doubt, from the fact that Lucas has an actual name.) Anyway, I'll get out of the way now so you can learn something.
Go Mighty Card:
When new coaches bring a dramatically different system into a program, Year 3 is typically when we see things start to turn around. This will be Mike Leach's second year. How does the fanbase feel about him, and what are the long term expectations for the program under Leach?
Well last year the Athletic Department had a new (err, renovated) stadium to sell and the Football Ops Building that was awaiting funding approval from our Board of Regents. Not to mention, Cougar football hadn’t been even semi relevant on the national scene since my first year as an alum (2006). So after the Leach hire last year, they made the classic mistake of over selling and under delivering. Fortunately, we’ve a fan base that is incredibly forgiving and still very excited for the future. That being said, a lot of things Mike Leach did rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. While Mike Leach certainly is different from almost every coach in the BCS, a lot of his basic approach (discipline, media, academics) is what you get with big boy football. Do we want to be the drunken doormats or do we want to be contenders? For example. Last week, Leach came out to the media and decided he will yank press credentials of any reporter who comments on injuries that they witness at practice, and report about. Many programs have similar policies, UW, Oregon, and USC all do this. I mean, why give away potentially damaging game plan information as your rivals are running against their WSU Scout Team all week? Like Al Davis once said, “Just win baby.” You do that, and all of this other stuff just disappears.
Fan reactions to Mike Leach are pretty mixed. Some people really like him, his offense, and his quirkiness. Others are put off a bit by one (his offense or his quirkiness), the other, or both. I think that generally people hope that he can do for WSU what Mike Riley has done at Oregon State. Namely, win 7-8 games each year, consistently go to bowl games, and occasionally be in the conference title conversation the first week in November. If he can do that—and stick around for a while—he will become a demi-god of sorts in Eastern Washington. To your point: I too think that the big turnaround will be in Leach’s 3rd year.
After enduring an eight-game losing streak, the Cougs finished with a big win over Washington in the Apple Cup. What did the Cougs struggle with, and what did that final win mean?
Last year was an interesting one, thanks for reminding me of that eight-game slide. Man, that was an Apple Cup for the ages. I’ve been to 11 straight games in that series, all but 3-4 with amazing finishes. The sense of pride that gives our fans, and had to give our team, was amazing. Last year we fought hard with some really good football teams (see OSU, Stanford, UCLA) and struggled to mount any sort of effort after falling behind by a few scores against mediocre competition (see BYU, ASU, and Utah). There is a chapter in the Mike Leach book, Swing Your Sword, where he talks about one of his early teams falling behind by 28 or so at halftime to Minnesota in the Insight.com Bowl. I don’t recall exactly what his halftime speech was, but I’ve got to imagine it was the same in last year’s Apple Cup. Slowly but surely, the team started taking care of the ball, fighting for the extra yard, and rallying to the opponent's ball carrier. While I’m not privy what it meant to the team, I’ve got to imagine it has built some confidence in that locker room that “yes, we do belong and look at this tangible evidence to what happens when we fight our asses off and don’t give up!” Here's a good link.
When you have to mount an 18-point fourth quarter comeback to go 3-9, it means that you’ve been struggling with a whole lot of things. I think most Cougar fans would agree that last year’s struggles could be traced principally to the offensive line—a group which might rank as the worst in the history of the conference (we gave up 57 sacks last year in case you haven’t heard).
But in addition to the offensive line, our defensive backfield struggled for most the year—even if we had our moments. Generally, our defense played pretty well against pro-style offenses (Stanford, Washington, Oregon State). However, teams that spread us out and got the ball quickly outside (Arizona State, Utah, UCLA) really ate us alive. So, looking forward to this year, most Cougar fans would say that if the O-Line is improved and the secondary can get off their blocks better, then we might be pretty fun to watch.
With respect to the Apple Cup, well, I think it gave the group a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball. Not only was Washington not able to keep up with our receivers in the second half of that game, the defense also played well. That performance is one of the primary reasons why some folks are pretty excited about our (returning) front seven.
Quarterback Connor Halliday had several huge games last season, but the starting job was never truly his. Is he the man this year? What are his strengths? What can we expect to see from him in 2013?
Conner Halliday was never really the man last year, but he had lots of glimmers. This off-season, it sounds like he has become very adept at hitting his check down option (a must in the Air Raid), as opposed to going for the home run ball or trying to force it to a covered receiver. A lot of people liken his gunslinger mentality to Brett Favre’s -- high risk, high reward. From everything I’ve read, it sounds like he is without question the leader of that unit and one of the two or three main leaders on the team (along with Darryl Monroe and Deone Bucannon). In a great profile on Halliday last week, Conner pointed out some of his problems from last year: “He came in last year,” Halliday recalls, “and he tells you a little bit about the offense and that’s it. I mean, he literally did not tell us anything else about what he expected. That was just a lot different for me and Jeff, because Coach Sturdy, they’re polar opposites. Sturdy gives you a game plan – 45 pages – every week of every protection, every check, every coverage, every da-da-da-da. So, you go through that, and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got it.’ But with Leach, it’s all on your shoulders. I mean, it’s ALL on your shoulders, and I didn’t really have an understanding of that. He never tells you that. Even when you’re not getting it, he doesn’t come up and tell you, ‘Hey, it’s on you. It’s your deal. You’re running it, it’s completely on your shoulders to figure that out.' That took me a little while. We get in games, and he doesn’t call very many plays. I’d say 70 percent of the time he gives me a formation, then just says, ‘Check.’ He’ll call the formation, and then I call the play."
Hard to know what to think of Mr. Halliday. His strengths are his arm strength, his moxy, and his leadership. His weaknesses to date are his accuracy and completion percentage and his ability to go through all of his reads. Unfortunately for Cougar fans, his weaknesses to date represent the essentials that a quarterback needs to be successful in Leach’s system.
Now, in fairness to Connor, he entered last year having not participated in spring drills and lacking meaningful reps with the starters in fall camp. So, what we saw of Connor last year was a kid learning a new system on the fly while also playing with a line that was four ticks south of the Maginot variety.
I actually think that Connor is going to have a big year. But, if the O-Line is improved as advertised, then Halliday is going to have a short leash to figure it out. Our second stringer, Austin Apodaca, is a mobile and very accurate passer. With home tilts against Idaho and Southern Utah in Weeks 3 or 4, I think we’ll see Austin start if Halliday struggles against Auburn and SC.
Which new or emerging player are you most looking forward to seeing this season?
We have a pair of freshmen CBs that are sitting in the 2 Deeps. We’ve struggled mightily against the pass the last couple of years with the incumbents, and I have a hunch their (DaMante Horton, Nolan Washington) leash isn’t long. So keep an eye on true freshmen Daquawn Brown and Charleston White.
There are three or four new players that could be difference makers for us this year. River Cracraft is a freshman slot receiver that has drawn some early comparisons to Wes Walker—he actually may start for us in Game 1. Vince Mayle is a BIG, physical outside wide receiver that could be a major player for WSU because of his size, strength, and speeed. Both represent solid additions to a WR corps that, in my view, is the deepest in the conference. Teams that lack depth at secondary may have a hard time keeping up with this group—assuming that the O-Line can block.
On defense, freshmen Daquan Brown and Charleston White are running with the 2s at corner, with Brown being a threat to start by mid-season. Their development will be really important for our mid-season tilts against teams with faster spread offenses and will also be important for our capacity to have a break-out season next year.
What's the best-case scenario for the Cougs, and what's the more realistic outcome?
I think the best-case scenario is a six-win WSU team, but no way they get more than that, unless they draw a weak bowl opponent. Realistically, I think 4-5 wins is more realistic. Like you pointed out, Year 3 is generally where you see that big leap. That being said, if they play like they did against the Huskies, Beavers, Stanford, and UCLA, they have a shot to be in a lot of football games this season. Our two biggest flaws the last few years have been the OL and secondary, and it’s all going to hinge on whether or not the OL can make a modest improvement. Last year there was so little threat in the running game that defenses regularly dropped 8-9 into coverage and could still get to the QB with 2-3 guys rushing. Our RBs averaged nearly 4 YPC; considering as a team we averaged 1.0 YPC, that just shows you how many yards were lost due to sacks. I think a very solid defensive front seven will naturally make our secondary better.
I think that 8 wins is the best-case scenario for this group with a repeat of last year’s 3 wins being the floor. To achieve the high mark, we’re going to have to beat Auburn in the opener. To reach the low mark, we’ll have to lose to Cal in October. Both of those contests represent our primary swing games. Our “upset alert” games for this year are Washington, Oregon State, and Stanford. All of those teams have the type of pro-style offense that our defense matches up with. Ultimately, if I had to bet the farm on the Cougs, I think I’d go with 5 wins. Two in non-conference (Idaho and Southern Utah) and three in conference (@CAL, Oregon State, Utah).
Finally, do you know any Coug fan who actually owns a Husky? Could a true fan get away with something like that?
I know there is at least one. I cannot recall who it is/was, but I’d totally out them here at Go Mighty Card if I could recall who it is, because I know that we had the conversation. That being said, I think most serious fans would never even consider owning a Husky as a pet; we’ve got a lot of Labs in the WSU community! The only time I would find it acceptable, is if their spouse is a UW grad. I sure wouldn’t own one!
Owning “a Husky” is never a concern for us Cougar fans. Owning “the Huskies” is our primary concern. And since Leach is undefeated against the Infidels to the West, we can all say that we own those losers for at least another few months.
Best of “Luck” to the Trees this year—would be fun to see them in the Natty!