As mentioned ad nauseam this week, there were a lot of reasons to feel like the Cougars have most definitely improved this year after watching a loss to Stanford that really was more closely contested than the final score would suggest.
But one thing that stood out to me more than anything was the reason the score wasn't as close as the game seemed to be: Stanford has playmakers, and we don't. At least not yet.
While Chris Owusu was bigger and faster than anyone we could match up with him, nobody on either side of the ball looked dominant for the Cougs. Yes, James Montgomery looked good when he got some space, Andy Mattingly made a nice play on that fourth-down pursuit of Andrew Luck, and Jared Karstetter looked like he's developing into a big, physical target.
But even in that, none of them -- or any of their teammates -- looked like guys who could take over a game, or break it open.
Now, there remains the strong possibility that some of that had to do with scheme. But one of the biggest things I was shocked by last week was just how hard it was for our receivers to get open against potentially one of the worst defensive secondaries we will face in Pac-10 play. Of the 18 passes completed by quarterbacks, only 10 were caught by wide receivers. The other eight went to running backs and tight ends.
I know this isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison, given the differences in the offenses, but in 2006 Brandon Gibson, Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus were the team's top three pass catchers and combined for 150 of the Cougs' 260 total receptions. If we throw in the two other wide receivers who caught passes that year (Chris Jordan and Charles Dillon), that number goes up to 175 of 260 -- a robust 67.3 percent.
This team doesn't appear to have even one guy on the order of Gibson, Hill or Bumpus on offense -- a guy who can fly past a defender on a route or make a move and turn a five-yard gain into a 30-yard gain.
Like I said, I'm hoping some of it was scheme, or even to a lesser extent guys getting up to speed in the first game. Besides being young, much of our receiving corps missed significant time during camp with injuries. Because if that's not the case, and we simply don't have a receiver who can get open against a subpar secondary, I think this year could be more painful than we're hoping for.
Same thing goes for the defensive side of the ball. The Cougs forced just 13 turnovers in 13 games last year, and are off to a similar start this year after zero takeaways against Stanford. I just don't see a Will Derting, Mkristo Bruce, Rien Long, Marcus Trufant or Lamont Thompson out there.
So that's what I'll be looking for today. Granted, this is a bottom half WAC team, but do some guys start to flash some ability to make some plays? If we do, maybe it's a sign that these guys just need to get some experience for it to shine through. If not ... well, I kinda don't want to think about that today, because I want to enjoy my Saturday.
Game notes I've run across ...
- We talked all week about how important it is to get pressure on a run-and-shoot quarterback. Well, that job just got a lot harder: Kevin Kooyman has a PCL injury to one of his knees, and is out three-to-four weeks, according to Grippi.
In his place will be Casey Hamlett and Jesse Feagin. If you're keeping score, our three defensive ends will be a true freshman, a transfer from a now-defunct Division II program and a senior who, before last week, had played a grand total of 10 games in his career (most recently two seasons ago after sitting out last year to concentrate on academics). Oh, and by the way, they had just one tackle between them in the opener. Cross your fingers.
- Furthermore, defensive tackle Dan Spitz is out, and Grippi keeps hinting that Louis Bland might not play, either. I've said before that I'd be shocked if Bland doesn't play, given what a warrior he is (lowercase w) -- he also said on a local radio show this week that his knee is "100 percent" and he's going to play -- but when Grippi repeats something like this over and over, it's usually got legs and makes me think the coaches might not let him play to save him for the long haul.
- Aire Justin is also out at corner. But I'm starting to wonder if that matters, as he doesn't look like he's improved one bit since last year. No wonder Daniel Simmons shot past him on the depth chart in camp.
- Eric Block is out too after that monster hit. (Sense a theme here on defense?)
- We talked on the podcast about how the Cougs should try to defend the run-and-shoot. Grippi gives us what might be a sneak preview:
"(Myron) Beck didn’t start against Stanford and only made one tackle. But the 6-foot, 209-pound former safety – he started the first three games there last season – may hold the key for the Cougars defensively. Beck should see plenty of action as a hybrid linebacker/safety, called upon to help in pass coverage and run support. The Cougars didn’t have him against Hawaii last year and he missed most of the offseason recovering from back surgery. But he’s run well the past two weeks and the former Ingraham High (Seattle) star is ready to play."
- I talked to Stephen Tsai again yesterday, and he said the Warriors' regular backup QB is out. Why is that a problem? Because they had to fly their third-stringer in from the islands yesterday to take his place. Greg Alexander has had issues with knee soreness in the past -- one reason why his coaches want him to stay in the pocket more -- and if he has to leave the game for any reason, that would be a huge advantage to the Cougs, I would think.
- I can't wait to watch LB Aaron Brown play for Hawaii. Why? Because he was a student at the school I taught at for his first two years. Even though he left us for the football factory in the valley, I'm interested to see how he looks.