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In this week's Q&A session with SB Nation's OSU site, Building The Dam, we explore how it is that the Beavers QB has been able to make a huge leap forward this season as the team has ascended up Associated Press poll.
Welcome to another installment of the CougCenter Q&A, wherein we tap into the vast wealth of knowledge around the SB Nation network to get the skinny on WSU's upcoming opponent. Today, our resident expert is Andy Wooldridge from Building The Dam. He answers three questions from us, then we flip it around and print our three answers to his questions.
CougCenter: Tell us why Sean Mannion has performed like the best quarterback in the conference over the first three games.
Building The Dam: As corny as it sounds, Sean appears to have done exactly what you would want any player to do between his first and second seasons. He always had the arm strength, which is why he got the game to begin with. To his credit, he saw the same shortcomings in his game that everyone else did, reading the defense and making good decisions quickly, throwing accurately, and avoiding big mistakes, and spent the winter, spring, summer, and fall camp working on improving on them.
The WSU secondary is perhaps the worst in the conference. Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton have been two of the more explosive receivers in the conference. I assume you can tell us how this is probably going to end badly.
Wheaton and Cooks can run away from almost any defenders, and I expect they will get behind the Cougars at times. But that ability to run away from coverage and get open isn't just vertical. If a secondary drops into something like cover 2 or tries to jam them with a safety over the top, both can also run into gaps on crossing routes, or drive the secondary deep and then come back to the ball. They have been able to use speed to get to openings wherever they exist.
We hold out hope that the Cougs will be able to hang in the game because of OSU's own questionable pass defense. Is that something reasonable to hope for?
Oregon St.'s safeties are generally inexperienced, especially beyond Anthony Watkins, and there have been some big plays made as a result of coverage assignment mistakes. Most haven't been repeated, though.
As often as the Cougs will put the ball in the air, I fully expect some more coverage mistakes Saturday. And the Beavers haven't been winning big; the total margin of the 3 wins is just 13 points. If Washington St. can get a score somewhere else as well (special teams, off a turnover) AND they don't give away turnovers, their offense should be able to keep them in the game, and if you are in position to win a game at the end, anything can happen.
That said, there is speed everywhere back there, and they are going to make some plays with it as a result too.
Building The Dam: Is the quarterback job now officially Connor Halliday's? Or will we see Mike Leach switch back to Jeff Tuel, who appeared to be healthy when he came in against Oregon? What's Coach Leach's strategy here?
CougCenter: Yes, it's officially his. Until Saturday, there was some question as to whether Tuel was even healthy enough to play, but when he relieved a banged up Halliday and promptly went 4-for-4 with a 25-yard touchdown to Marquess Wilson, that was put to rest. As practice started this week, Halliday continued to take the practice reps with the No. 1 offense, so there seems to be no doubt that Leach has settled on sticking with Halliday. And I think that's a testament to Halliday's growth, which was especially evident on Saturday -- although he still threw an interception, there were far fewer of the blatantly bad decisions he's become sort of infamous for.
Is the defense really as bad as everyone is saying? Or are they just too thin? 34 points should have been enough to beat the Buffs, until 3 4th quarter TDs. And the Cougars even hung with Oregon for quite a while, only to see things blow up in the second half. What can we expect to see done to compensate for the defense until there is time to recruit some speed?
The defense has a very clear strength and a very clear weakness. Its strength is stopping the run -- for the first time in years, the middle of this line is pretty tough, led by nose tackles Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole, who both are strong and quick and allow the linebackers to fill running lanes. MLB Darryl Monroe lays the wood regularly. But the secondary has been a mess, giving up big plays all over the place. I will say this, though: The defense appeared greatly improved last weekend in terms of being assignment sound (at least as much as we could tell from what we know of the defense). There really was only one readily apparent major breakdown in coverage, and that's a positive sign, since multiple breakdowns led to Colorado's improbable comeback.
So, really, the answer to your question is yes and no. Yes, they lack talent in a few spots and the depth is thin, but no, it's not all explained by that. It will be interesting to see what kind of strategy defensive coordinator Mike Breske employs on Saturday -- I'd bet on something quasi-conservative that forces Sean Mannion to complete a lot of throws underneath and daring him not to make mistakes.
Other than in a few short yardage situations, has Washington St. just totally abandoned trying to run? We all knew Coach Leach would go heavy on the pass, but we thought the Cougars would still try to run at least a little. Is the offensive line just totally over-matched? Was what we are seeing, 123rd of 124 teams in the country in rushing, what you expected?
The Air Raid is generally geared only to run against favorable fronts, so it's not like they were going to run it a ton, anyway. But if you can't run, you can't run, no matter what the front. WSU really can't run. It's that simple, and I don't expect that to change this weekend. It was a big problem early on against BYU and Eastern and UNLV, but the Cougs have started to figure out how to move the ball even against eight-man coverages.