The last two times Washington State fans have exhaled their final stale breath of a dreaded off-season and inhaled the giddy excitement of Cougar Football Saturday, they’ve gagged — nearly to death — on the excruciatingly bitter taste of an FCS loss.
Losses happen. Consecutive season-opener losses to FCS teams by a Power 5 program that goes on to win at least eight games that year is laughably absurd.
You have to laugh. A little. Because that happened, and because if it happens again it might stress the forgiveness of a fanbase that was starved for wins for more than a decade. That’s how damaging these FCS losses have been. A not-insignificant portion of WSU fans, who not so long ago watched 11 years of football between seasons with a winning record, are prepared to haul out the pitchforks if another fall starts 0-1.
So now, rather than hope no one gets injured and the back-ups get some decent playing time, we have to hope the Cougs actually show up when the gates of Martin swing open for the first time and the fans christen a new fall of college football in the RV lots.
Wazzu was somewhat recently described as college football’s Bomberman. Wandering the wilderness with live ordinance in one hand and a flamethrower in the other, a Fireball whiskey filled backpack fueling it’s navigation.
Lean into that, Cougs. Let’s ride.
Former WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate will lead his Montana State Bobcats into Martin Stadium this Saturday, roughly six years since his departure from the coaching staff. In 2016, his first season as head coach at MSU, Choate tallied four wins on the season and two in the Big Sky conference in the wake of a post-Dakota Prukop Bobcat era.
Chris Murray split time with once-heralded Coug recruit Tyler Bruggman at quarterback last season, leading the team in rushing with 860 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to picking up Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors. Bruggman left Bozeman for College Station, leaving Murray with a new offensive coordinator and a new interest in Power Football.
Murray was more a spread-option quarterback, but now looks to helm an offense at-least partially focused on under-center, smash-mouth football.
Choate explained to the Billings Gazette that he looks at what is challenging for him to defend, and aims to incorporate that into his own offense with first-year coordinator Brian Armstrong.
“I want some option,” Choate details, “I want formation to the boundary. I want unbalanced sets. I want some under-center runs. Those are the things that I know are challenging from a defensive perspective, so let’s run that on offense. Let’s have that as a part of our package.
“Being under center and having the ‘I’ formation or having the running back directly behind the quarterback, as crazy as it sounds, those things are harder (to defend) than you might think.”
Power Football is not the only focus of their offense, however, they want to be as multiple as possible rather than perfect a particular style of offense. It’s a direct contrast to the highly disciplined, technique-focused approach Mike Leach takes with his offense where the emphasis is to be the best at doing your job.
Instead, the Bobcats want to make you defend the triple option one play, zone-read out of shotgun on the next, and maybe some I-formation power running or play-action the snap after that. That multiple approach provides a solid challenge to the flexibility and adaptability of Wazzu’s Speed D under Alex Grinch.
What has me concerned about Montana State
Snooze: Sometimes I’m a victim of my own procrastination and hit that snooze button one too many times, actually managing to forget I was supposed to wake up. Much like Cougar Football the past two years. Please don’t hit the snooze button on the college football season again.
Fancy footwork: The Cougs have had a recent track record of trouble with running quarterbacks. Somehow they manage to get lost in the Speed D run fits. That isn’t lost on Coach Grinch, who told Theo Lawson of the Spokesman Review that he views Murray as more one-dimensional, and the Cougs won’t have to worry as much about the passing threat as they did with EWU’s Gage Gubrud or CU’s Sefo Liufau last season.
Apropos of nothing, Murray completed 10-13 pass attempts with no interceptions for 192 yards and 2 TDs in their most recent scrimmage. He rushed six times for 16 yards.
Bill Lamberty, SID for Montana State Athletics, was kind enough to give us some insights on the Bobcats
What are you most confident in about the Montana State Bobcats?
“The area of the team I have the most confidence in is probably special teams. As Cougar fans probably know, Jeff Choate has been a great kick teams coach almost from the moment he began his college coaching career, and with BJ Robertson (ST coordinator) I felt last year our production in that area was considerably greater than most would have expected based on the amount of talent available (not taking away from any of the kids).
“I expect that to be the case again this year based on the new players in the program. This is an observation based on a full season, I’m certainly not making any predictions for this week’s game because Washington State, obviously, is a supremely talented team.
“At kicker, Luke Daly is back with the team this year after missing 2016 and has looked excellent all summer as the place kicker. He has an exceptionally strong leg, and I believe he is NFL caliber. He’ll handling punting duties. Consistency has been an issue he’s working on as a punter, but when he gets a hold of one he booms some eye-catching punts. He’s never punted in a game in college, so the experience Saturday may be interesting for him, but I expect that he’ll have a tremendous senior season.
“In the last year I’ve gained confidence that Jeff Choate’s teams will always be prepared, and will be able to make appropriate in-game adjustments. This program’s coordinators and position coaches game-plan well. Washington State will be supremely prepared, as well, and with a sixth-year coach the belief system is strong.”
What has confident about the Cougs
The Messiah of the Palouse: Luke Falk enters his final season taking snaps for WSU and could be the program’s all-time passing leader before the end of September. The nickname Gabe Marks gave him really says it all.
New No. 1: Tavares Martin Jr. assumes the role of Gabe Marks as The Guy at wide receiver. Establishing the connection between Falk and Martin Jr. early could propel them into being one of the most potent tandems in the conference.
Fantastic Four: James Williams, Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and Keith Harrington — as ordered on the depth chart — return as one of the most dangerous backfields in all of college football. The strength of the ground attack really transformed WSU’s threat, offensively.
Goon Squad: Cody O’Connell headlines a group of nasties in the Wazzu offensive line, securing a pre-season All-America nod from the AP. Cole Madison is the top-ranked offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, who showed the Cougs an insane amount of love in their metrics.
As a whole, the Goon Squad averages 322.6 lbs, which makes them among the largest groups in college. It took a few years but the offensive line is not only a position group of strength for WSU, but dominance.
So, Mr. Lamberty...
What about Wazzu should concern Montana State?
“Is ‘everything’ an acceptable answer? In my 27 years here the Cats have only played one other top 25 FBS team – Texas A&M in 2007 – and I believe this Washington State team is more experienced and likely more talented. I don’t expect the stage will be too big for this group of Bobcats, but it remains a young team. The first unit on both sides of the ball is fairly experienced, but the second group – and by extension the special teams – features 13 players in their first varsity season. That’s stark, and unusual, but the talent level in that group is exciting and over the course of the full season I think Saturday’s game will be beneficial.”
How I see the game playing out
I don’t foresee much obstruction by the Bobcat defense. Realistically, WSU should score on over 75 percent of their possessions due to the talent disparity alone. But, first game jitters for a young receiving corps and the general sluggishness of early-season offenses in college football probably prevent that from happening.
#Drop70 could also happen though.
It could also take a few possessions for Grinch’s defense to get their feet under them against a highly variable offense, doing a lot of things they don’t often see competing opposite an Air Raid team for the last month in camp. There might be a long drive, or a few busted coverage plays but eventually they’ll figure it out.
Final Score: WSU 58 - 10 MSU
“I’m not sure there’s a safe or even reasonable way to answer this, and I have a personal policy of never predicting games or scores because I’m always wrong, but I’ll give you a final score in honor of Dennis Erickson’s induction into the Washington Sports Hall of Fame: 14 (Dennis’ jersey number when he was an All-America quarterback for the Bobcats in the late ‘60s) to 12 (his win total in two seasons as the Cougars’ head coach). This is completely unrealistic based on Wazzu’s high-powered offense, and I’ll let you and your readers assign the point totals to the respective teams, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it”.
Huge thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer our questions!