We might hate the Huskies, but I gotta be honest: I like theCassino over at UW Dawg Pound. He and I got together to exchange questions and answers as you gear up for kickoff today at 12:30 p.m. PT on Fox.
CougCenter: Keith Price is obviously the guy who's been under the most scrutiny this year. Explain what's been behind his up-and-down season.
UW Dawg Pound: His up-and-down play is mostly a function of the moving pieces around him. With the shuffling around of young offensive linemen he has had few opportunities to get comfortable behind his pass protection, and when he did get them the receivers have been inconsistent in getting open as a true compliment to Kasen Williams never really stepped up. He's also regressed quite a bit on his own right, missing throws that he was hitting consistently last season. He's probably not as good as he played last year when he had 2 senior wideouts who got looks in the NFL and one of the best backs in the country to make plays, but he's not as bad as he played in the first half of this season either.
Coug fans remember Bishop Sankey as a former WSU commit, and probably will treat him accordingly. (Even though I'd argue he was never coming to Pullman in the first place, but I guess that's another conversation. I digress.) Give us a scouting report on just what we're missing, and what's been behind his surge this year.
Sankey is a pretty uninteresting player to talk about. He doesn't have an aspect of his game that stands out as something he can hang his hat on, but he also doesn't really have any holes either. And as you'd expect with that recipe, he's a pretty consistent back. If you let him hurt you, he will, but he's not going to take over the game either. I don't think he's put enough fear into a defense that they've sold out to stop him at the expense of defending the pass, but that's probably more out of respect to the threat that Williams, Price and Austin Seferian-Jenkins pose even though they've been up and down.
The Husky offensive line's run blocking is miles ahead of its pass blocking, and they've had to rely on him more than they probably would have liked to due to the Jesse Callier injury -- he's probably going to finish the year with around 280-290 carries, and for comparison Chris Polk's season high was 293.
Justin Wilcox. Discuss. (You also could throw in an over/under on lip licks if you like.)
Night and day between him and his predecessor. Hiring him probably save Sark's job, because with a defense like last season's this team would probably be something like 3-8. He has -- at times -- been able to scheme to take away an aspect of the opposition's offense, and if I were a WSU fan that would worry me. The strength of UW's defense is its secondary, and the WSU offense is already pretty one dimensional. If he can win the chess match there, the game could get ugly even if the Husky offense isn't firing on all cylinders. Wilcox has only really faced two teams that are "passing teams", but in those games he was able to get Matt Barkley to play one of his worst games of the season and force Sean Mannion into throwing 4 interceptions. Small sample, sure, but I have a good deal of confidence in the plan he'll put together.
If there is one lip lick that gets televised, that will be way too many.
UW probably will have about eight sacks. Which defensive player is going to get there the most?
The smart money is on Josh Shirley. He harassed WSU a bit last season, and is the closest thing UW has to a consistent pass rusher. Given how much WSU passes, I'm sure Shirley is going to have the green light to pin his ears back from the first snap of the game, and that's when he's dangerous. But the defensive line has been largely unable to get pressure on its own, and guys like Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson seem to be the team's best option in bringing additional pressure.
Please tell me that you're not one of those Husky fans who's all like "I root for the Cougars except when they play UW!" Because you need to know that I hope your teams lose every game in every sport for the rest of eternity.
I'm not one of those fans, but I don't actively root against them all the time either. I don't spend too much time hoping any other teams win or lose the other games on their schedules. I like for the other Pac-12 teams to win their nonconference games because that helps Washington tangentially, but it's not something worth getting emotionally invested in. I will say though, if I had to choose, I'd rather have the Cougars and Huskies both be nationally relevant and have the Apple Cup be a high-profile and meaningful game, or for WSU to just be terrible and I get to enjoy the meltdown. WSU being somewhere in the middle is the least interesting scenario.
And now, my answers to his questions.
UWDP: The quarterback position: if all things were equal, who would you like to see starting and why? Who do you think will start?
CougCenter: No brainer: Jeff Tuel. Connor Halliday has put up eye-popping numbers at times, but on the whole, Tuel's been the better quarterback this year. He started out the season tentative and indecisive, and when he got hurt against Eastern, Halliday seized the opportunity, keeping the job even after Tuel returned to health. But it's boom or bust with Halliday, and his interceptions became an enormous problem to the point that Leach went back to Tuel. Since then, he's been pretty good, even leading the team to a near upset of Stanford on the road. But then Tuel went out and got hurt again against UCLA, allowing Halliday to come in and put up huge numbers with the team hopelessly behind. Tuel returned to start against ASU, but after a rough first quarter (that wasn't helped by a bunch of drops), Mike Leach benched Tuel for Halliday. Halliday was terrible, too.
The bottom line is that neither guy has set the world on fire. But Tuel has been the more accurate of the two and less mistake prone. As if that weren't enough, the Apple Cup is Tuel's senior day, and after the way he's been pummeled for four years behind what has to be one of the worst performing offensive lines in the history of major college football, he deserves to go out on his terms. Halliday apparently sustained a concussion at some point against ASU, so it looks like this is the direction it will go -- as it should.
The injury to Travis Long is a big blow, as he was the clear rock of the WSU defense. What other players are there to keep an eye on on that side of the ball?
His replacement Logan Mayes, is a good place to start. He doesn't have the girth of Long, but he's a heck of a pass rusher and could present some problems in obvious passing situations. The question is whether he'll be a liability against the run. A guy who won't get the casual fan's attention but who will be oh-so-important to slowing down Bishop Sankey is nose tackle Ioane Gauta. The juco transfer has been a rock in the middle for most of the year, although he has seemed to wear out just a little bit as the year has gone on. If he can hold up to the double teams and keep UW from getting a good push, it makes the linebackers' jobs easier.
A linebacker to watch is Cyrus Coen, a former walk-on who seems to have a knack for making big plays. He'll likely end up matched up with Austin Seferian-Jenkins a bunch, which frankly is an apparent mismatch. He'll have to have the game of his life. And the player in the secondary whose name you'll hear called most often is safety Deone Bucannon. That's both a blessing and a curse, because it means UW is moving the ball.
What is an area, or a couple areas, where you'd give the Cougars a matchup advantage? What matchups does Washington State need to win to succeed?
Honestly, I don't see an obvious matchup advantage anywhere - I suppose that happens when one team is 7-4 and the other is 2-9. But if there's one area where WSU might be able to do some damage, it's in its pass rush - the Cougs actually are 11th nationally in sacks, and it isn't a fluke. They've figured out ways to get pressure this year with some nifty blitz packages. Since I know Washington has had protection issues this year, perhaps this is an area the Cougs can excel.
I also think the Gauta/Toni Pole (his backup who rotates in) matchup with the interior of Washington's line on running plays will be critical. Both guys are capable of being incredibly disruptive.
The Huskies have been prone to slow starts on the road of late, at least offensively. However, the strength of the defense is the secondary, where you want it against an Air Raid attack. If the Huskies come out flat, is the WSU passing game good enough to put Washington in a hole? What kind of game (shootout, defensive grind, turnover fest) would play most into the Cougars hands?
It can be! But it also can be downright awful. I honestly have no idea what to expect out of the gate for the Cougs, but I know that a quick start offensively would go a long way toward keeping the team and fans away from "here we go again." As for style, I think a defensive grind is best because the offense has proven incapable of piling up points against anyone other than a mentally-checked-out UCLA. The defense likely will have to hold the Huskies under 30 points for the Cougs to have a legitimate chance in this game.
Clearly the first season under Mike Leach has been a bit of a disappointment. How long of a rebuild is the Cougar faithful looking at, what are realistic expectations over the coming years, and what are the keys to address in this coming offseason?
Most people are still on board with the idea that Leach is indeed the solution long term, even as this year hasn't gone at all as expected. As for how long it will take ... who knows. I don't really know what to think. I think there's a chance to take a big step forward next year; the defense loses just two starters (Long and the team's best corner, Daniel Simmons), and the offense returns a ton of pieces, as well. It likely will come down to how much the offensive line improves and how much Leach can get out of whichever quarterback wins the job (likely Halliday). It's rumored that Leach has a ton of offers out to juco linemen, and they'll need that to work out as well as some of the guys who redshirted this year come into next season ready to play. But even if that happens, it still feels like a bowl game is a longshot next year.