The WSU Cougars and Colorado State Rams kickoff the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Saturday at 11 a.m. PT (ESPN), and Brian Anderson has spent the last few days breaking down the unfamiliar opponent - it's the first ever meeting between the two schools.
But the Rams remain a bit of a mystery beyond "Kapri Bibbs is really good," so to gain a little more insight into the Rams, we hit up Jeremy Mauss from our sister site Mountain West Connection for a little Q&A action.
His answers to our questions first, then my answers to his questions follow.
CougCenter: Kapri Bibbs is awesome. What makes him so good?
Mauss: Not be cliché, but it really starts with the offensive line. That group is very experienced and Colorado State's center Weston Richburg will be one of the few taken in the upcoming NFL Draft. As for Bibbs' ability, he has great field vision, follows his blocks and makes great cutback moves to fake out defenders. He is very fast and has a good burst of speed to break off a play once he gets into the open field. He is very durable with four games with 29 or more carries, and he should be fully healthy after suffering from a lingering lower extremity injury during the final two games of the regular season. Also, he fights for every yard he gets and never stops moving; that is why he averages six yards a carry.
Having not watched CSU a bunch this year, the stats seem to suggest that the Rams' passing game exists mostly as a big-play counter to the body blows of the running game. True?
That is mostly true, as quarterback Garrett Grayson is top 15 in the nation with pass plays over 15 and 25 yards. First down is when Colorado State is most effective with those deep plays and that is because first down is typically a running down and the Rams offense will buck the trend on that if they have already established a solid running game. The ironic thing about the number of big plays in the passing game is that no Colorado State receiver averages more than 12 yards per catch; that is not bad, but based on the number of big plays, that number should be higher for at least one Rams wide receiver.
If WSU is able to contain Bibbs, does CSU have enough in the passing game to keep up with the Cougars?
Probably not since the running game really sets up the passing game for Colorado State. Grayson has not been a favorite quarterback of some Colorado State fans. However, he has improved as the season progressed. The Utah State game was an exception in which he threw for under 200 yards, and that is because of the severe winds in that game where no one could throw. The wide receivers are solid in Joe Hansley and Rashard Higgins, plus tight end Collin Locket, yet there are just a few games to really know. The San Jose State game is the closest example where the running game had just 157 yards on the ground, and Grayson threw for 310 yards and they lost that game.
Colorado State's defense seems especially porous against the pass, which of course is exactly what WSU wants to see. Do they have a prayer of slowing down a team that hopes to throw it 60 times?
The secondary is the weak link and that will be an issue for the Colorado State defense. The front seven is very good at getting to the quarterback, but if Washington State unleashes the ball very quickly, as expected, this could be a long day for the Rams defensive backs. If the defensive lineman cannot get to the quarterback, they will need to get their hands up and try to knock the ball down. The defensive backs will likely need to jam the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the route so that the timing is off, but who knows if they can really do that. However, the Mountain West has a lot of passing teams that sling the ball around so this will not be completely new territory, but Washington State takes that to the extreme.
What makes MWC defensive player of the year Shaquil Barrett so special?
It starts with having good speed and size by being 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, and he has great football instincts which led him to 20.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks. He seems to always know what play the offense is going to run, but it also helps that he has a good skill set to get past an offensive lineman or a running back who attempts to block him. The defensive scheme helps as does having Cory James who has six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss this year, and if a team focuses too much on Barrett then James and others can have big plays. It is a combination of having good players around him, a great set of tools to maneuver his way to the backfield and coaches dialing up the right play for the defense.
Mauss: This is Mike Leach's second year at Washington State; is he right on track or ahead of schedule by getting to a bowl game?
CougCenter: If you had asked me that question before the start of last season, I'd have said right on track - or maybe even a little behind. When Leach was hired, we believed that the team was on the cusp of bowl eligibility, given that Paul Wulff's final season produced four wins without its starting quarterback for virtually the entire slate. The thought was that Leach was just what we needed to get the program over the top. A bowl appearance last year was assumed - something like the New Mexico Bowl - and I think many we were on a trajectory for something better than that this season.
Of course, last season was a complete and total disaster; poor efforts were routine (everyone remembers Leach saying his players had a "zombie-like ... empty-corpse quality" after the blowout loss to Utah), discontent littered the roster (the team's best player, Marquess Wilson, quit mid-season), and only a dramatic come-from-behind win over Washington in the Apple Cup for the team's third victory saved the season from being looked at as an utter failure.
Fans realized the program probably wasn't as close to getting over the hump as it seemed, and that tempered expectations coming into this year - even the athletic director warned fans that this might be another rebuilding season. Most reasonable fans figured a four- or five-win season was in store. Given that context, we are ecstatic that these guys somehow coaxed six wins out of one of the most difficult schedules in the country and probably would say that the program is now a bit ahead of schedule.
You guys did an excellent series of breaking down Mike Leach's Air Raid offense this past offseason, but can you provide the shortened version of what he is doing at Washington State?
It's tough to condense the X's and O's too much, but it's not terribly difficult to distill what the Air Raid is all about, philosophically: Make the defense honestly defend all parts of the field up to about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. That means the Cougs are going to spread you out with four-wide formations on virtually every play and throw it about 70 percent of the time, using route concepts that exploit space and create confusion by forcing the defense to make difficult coverage decisions in real time. It seems odd to most that a team can throw it that much and be successful, but it helps to consider many of the throws as long handoffs.
Last year, teams were able to stymie the offense by dropping seven and eight into coverage on every play, but the Cougs have proven they'll run the ball a bit against favorable fronts - that is, those they feel they can block when they're hat-on-hat. I would guess that CSU would be one of those teams, so if the Rams give looks that they are obviously dropping six or more into coverage responsibilities, expect WSU to take advantage by running the ball. Disguising pre-snap intentions for coverage is key for defenses so as to bait Connor Halliday into calling a play - and the QB in the Air Raid does, indeed, call his own plays at the line from the formation that's sent in by Leach - that the defense is prepared for. Athletic teams such as USC, Stanford and Oregon had a lot of success that way against WSU, but it's obviously questionable whether CSU can do that.
Colorado State is good at getting to the quarterback and stopping runs behind the scrimmage -- not that the latter will be much of a concern -- how good is the offensive line preventing sacks, or is it more of Connor Holliday getting rid of the ball quickly?
Much improved. The Cougar offensive line was one of the worst units in the country for about half a decade; from 2008-2012, WSU gave up sacks on about out of every 10 dropbacks by the quarterback. This year, that number is down to about one out of every 25. It's a huge improvement that has made a big difference in the effectiveness of the offense - not just from a lost yardage perspective, but also in Halliday being more comfortable in the pocket - and the protection has gotten better as the season has gone on. (Halliday also has gotten better at getting rid of the ball quickly in the face of stiff pressure.)
Nowhere what that more evident than when the offensive line kept Utah, the leader nationally in sacks, from bringing Halliday down even once. That's not to say CSU will have no success at all in getting to Halliday; Shaquil Barrett obviously is a special player and could win a handful of individual battles. But the offensive line is no longer a revolving door and CSU probably will have some trouble generating heat on Halliday.
Kapri Bibbs has had a great season running the ball for Colorado State, so how well does the Washington State defense do in stopping the running game?
This is the strength of the WSU defense. The line is stout with Ioane Gauta, Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper all disruptive forces. They've more than held their own against good rushing attacks, limiting guys such as Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Auburn's Tre Mason. That said, Bishop Sankey just had a monster day in the Apple Cup, putting up more than 200 yards on 34 carries, and Bibbs looks very similar, style-wise, to Sankey. However, Sankey did a lot of his damage late as the defense wore down, thanks to the offense's ineffectiveness against the Huskies in the second half. Do the Rams have the horses up front to lean on the Cougars in that way? I'm not sure.
Who are some players who Colorado State should know?
We've covered some, but here are a couple of others. A big one to know is safety Deone Bucannon, a first-team AP All-American. While he's solid in coverage (tied for the team lead with five interceptions), where he really excels is in run support. He's fast and strong and loves to hit.
Also feel free to watch all of this, on repeat. Expect him to set his sights on Bibbs early and often, given both his style of play and the fact that this is his final game. He's been through the valley with this program and has come out the other side, and I expect him to want to go out with a bang.
We could highlight most of the receivers, but I'll focus on the three guys who get the bulk of the snaps at the two outside receiver spots: Vince Mayle, Gabe Marks and Dom Williams. All three have game-breaking ability. Mayle is a junior college transfer who got better and better as the year went on; he's big and fast and physical and has proven himself to be a load against most corners - even taller ones, like the ones CSU has. Marks was Halliday's top target; he's smaller but has great hands and is unafraid to go get the ball. And Williams is long and lanky and will blow by pretty much anyone who doesn't get a hand on him. It was his run after the catch on a screen, in which he slipped a couple of tackles, that set WSU up to defeat USC.
How do you think the game will play out?
It's so tough to say when it comes to bowl games - they're obviously notorious unpredictable. I tend to think WSU is a bit of a matchup nightmare for CSU: The Rams' offensive strength plays into the Cougars' defensive strength, while the Cougars' offensive strength plays right into the Rams' defensive weakness. If I were going only off of that, I'd say WSU probably wins comfortably. But Jim McElwain is a smart dude, and I'm sure he'll have some things cooked up to try and get an advantage. I'd guess that the game is close through a half with WSU pulling away for a double-digit victory down the stretch.