The Tailgater's Guide to Cougar Football is a weekly series, published every Thursday, designed to prepare you for the upcoming week's matchup - both on and off the field.
[credit Cougfan2003; YouTube]
Cougar football is back.
You might be wondering why I chose a highlight reel from 2002 for the first Tailgater's Guide of 2011. It's simple, really: this is what the are Cougars playing for. Not the Rose Bowl, mind you, that's a little further on down the road. This year's Cougars are playing to get back to this level. To be competitive again. To take the next step toward being a contender.
The last two seasons saw our fanbase entering the fall only expecting a modest improvement at best. Two to three wins - and progress - were our expected outcomes in 2009 and 2010. Now, all of a sudden, six win predictions don't seem all that crazy. Improbable? Maybe. I stand by my prediction of 4-8 this season, as I think it's the most realistic outcome. But even realistic predictions don't always predict reality. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction; sometimes your expectations can be blown away by a team on a mission.
Excuse me if I've become a bit of an optimist. I've been watching the Sounders quite a lot lately, which is basically sports detox from the losing ways of all the other Seattle sports teams (minus the Seahawks, kind of). I've become open to the idea that the kind of team you see in the above YouTube video can come back to life. The school you see in those pictures can become the school you see on the field in the present. It's not going to be an instant turnaround, but it's coming sooner rather than later. The worst is behind us.
The one thing you can't say is that a return to glory is impossible. It's been done before. 2002 was proof of that.
Week one will be - hopefully - a bright start to the 2011 season. While it's been noted the line between FCS and FBS divisions have been blurred in recent years, Idaho State isn't the kind of team that is expected to compete with the highest level of college football. They are a struggling program with a first year head coach that couldn't break free from the cellar of the Big Sky conference last fall. This is a far cry from opening on the road at Oklahoma State and getting blasted by one of the nation's most powerful offenses. This year sees WSU taking the SEC-style cupcake game approach to the first game of the season, and we thank the athletic department for that.
Let's talk about coaches. Last year after week one made me lose some faith in the Washington State staff. I really didn't want that to happen. Since day one of his coaching tenure, I've been rooting for Paul Wulff. How can you not? He's an alumnus, a coach who worked his way diligently up the coaching ladder and a guy who isn't about to let this school get hit hard by the NCAA infractions committee. Still, that Oklahoma State game was another humiliating defeat on the heels of two years of humiliating defeats. Fortunately, Oregon State came along later that year and things started to turn for the better. Now, we're on the upswing, and Wulff has the opportunity to prove many of his detractors wrong with a multi-win season. Regardless of what you think of Wulff, there is no denying that as the Pac-12 opens this program has a much brighter future ahead of it. It almost doesn't matter who the head coach is. Bill Moos has the University poised to make the most of its new television contract money, and our new assistant coaches bring years of FBS experience to a staff that had relatively little not too long ago.
On the other side of the field, for the Bengals of Idaho State, we have Mike Kramer. Kramer is one of my all-time favorite coaches. He took Eastern Washington from Big Sky also-ran into a National Championship contender. He directed the most ridiculous comeback I have ever seen in person, in any sport, versus Idaho in 1997:
IDAHO 21, EASTERN WASHINGTON 17
Troy Scott kickoff 45 yards to the EWU20, Jimmy Lake return 16 yards to the
EWU36 (Laki Ah Hi;Jason Daniel).
E 1-10 E36 EASTERN WASHINGTON drive start at 01:11.
E 1-10 E36 Harry Leons pass complete to Jeff Ogden for 38 yards to the UI26, 1ST
DOWN EWU, out-of-bounds (Kevin Hill).
E 1-10 I26 Harry Leons pass complete to Jeff Ogden for 23 yards to the UI3, 1ST
DOWN EWU (Tony Uranga).
E 1-G I03 Timeout Eastern Washington, clock 00:50.
Ogden leaves field under his own power
E 1-G I03 Rex Prescott rush for no gain to the UI3 (Ryan Skinner;Bryson Gardner).
E 2-G I03 Timeout Eastern Washington, clock 00:37.
E 2-G I03 Rex Prescott rush for 3 yards to the UI0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 00:34.
Josh Atwood kick attempt good.
IDAHO 21, EASTERN WASHINGTON 24
Although, looking back on that, it may have had less to do with coaching, and more to do with Jeff Ogden catching two passes for 61 yards in 21 seconds. And Ogden came down with the second catch despite being shaken up on the play. Eastern needed only 4 plays and 37 seconds to go 64 yards for a touchdown at Joe Albi Stadium.
Mike Kramer was Paul Wulff before Paul Wulff. Only the mistake of a lateral coaching move from EWU to Montana State (and the drama that ensued in Bozeman) derailed any aspirations of moving up to the next level. Now he starts anew in the Big Sky (by far my favorite of the "Big" conferences) with probably his toughest challenge yet: the Idaho State Bengals. If Idaho State is even remotely competitive in this game, it will be largely due to Kramer's gameplan and his familiarity with the WSU program.
Key Matchup - The WSU pass defense versus Idaho State QB Kevin Yost
If you read Craig's game preview, you know that Idaho State is going to come into this game pass-happy. They have virtually no run game to speak of, and their only hope of staying in this game is to toss the ball in the air and hope more touchdowns are scored by their receivers than by the Cougar defensive backs. This is the kind of game in which the Bu-cannon should be in full effect.
Deone Bucannon, WSU - In reality, ISU will probably look to stay away from Deone Island, and his impact will likely be relegated to keeping the Bengals from attempting to throw it deep. Nevertheless, we at CougCenter take every opportunity to use this .gif.
[click to animate]
Kevin Yost, ISU - A junior college transfer starting his first game on the road with a new offense for a new coach against a team with much stronger defensive talent. If he has a good game Saturday I will be on the Kevin Yost for Heisman bandwagon.
Recommended Local Activity - It's summer. Head to Boyer Park and/or the nearby sand dunes for sunbathing, grilling, swimming and responsible drinking if you're up for it. Enjoy this weather in Pullman while you can, because it'll be dropping about 80 degrees in the next two and a half months.
Recommended Food - La Casa Lopez - Craig reminded me of this restaurant when he suggested it as a meal option to Jason Gesser via Twitter. This is certainly debatable, but in my opinion it was the best Mexican food in the Pullman-Moscow area. It's probably the nicest of all the Mexican restaurants in the region aesthetically, unless you're more into the mass-produced decor of a Qdoba or Taco Del Mar.
Gametime Snack of the Week - Pringles. There's nothing better than opening up a new can of Pringles. However, there's nothing worse than the effort you have to put forth to get to the chips from the bottom half of the tube. If you only want one chip at that point, you get seven sliding out. If you want seven, just the top two come out despite your best intentions.
Gametime Cheap Beer of the Week - PBR! I wish someone outside company could keep stats on your life for you... because I think PBR was the first beer I drank in the dorms at WSU, but I'm not entirely sure. Not that I would ever drink in the dorms or anything. And before you think for a moment that drinking in the dorms gives me street cred, be aware that I lived for a year in Honors Hall.
Gametime Premium Beer of the Week - Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA - I might as well get my Dogfish Head suggestion out of the way early, or else I might end up being tempted to pick one of their beers every week.
Gametime Song of the Week - Don't ever change, Dave Grohl.
Utah 46, Montana State 10
Arizona State 56, UC Davis 3
USC 28, Minnesota 21
UCLA 31, Houston 30
Oregon State 49, Sacramento State 7
Stanford 50, San Jose State 9
Washington 28, Eastern Washington 14
California 27, Fresno State 17
LSU 28, Oregon 24
Arizona 42, Northern Arizona 14
Hawai'i 30, Colorado 24
Prediction - Washington State 41, Idaho State 7 - Idaho State should only move the ball late in the game against the Cougar backups, and Tuel-to-Wilson should take care of all the Cougars' offensive needs. Hopefully, this is the start of a wonderful season.