Happy Football Friday to you, Followers. Hope you have had a terrific week!
Tonight, your Washington State Cougars take on the California Berkeley Bears under the Friday night lights as well as a national television audience. This game, like the others for the next two weeks, represent the first stage of what appears to be a Championship run (note: Making a run at a Championship is not the same thing as actually winning one).
For the next three weeks, the Cougs will enter each game as prohibitive favorites, with the only thing standing between them and a record tying 9-0 start is: (a) Their focus; and (b) Injuries.
But just as importantly, the next three games present a golden opportunity for this Cougar team to address the deficiencies that currently stand to derail their Championship dreams in November (or perhaps December). And those deficiencies are as follows:
- The Cougs are still dropping far too many “routine” balls. Moreover, at times, the WRs appear to be running out of the spaces they’re supposed to sit in during key third down situations. Against, UW, Utah, and Stanford, those kinds of mistakes will cost us key possessions; and in tight games, the loss of those possessions represent the difference between winning and losing.
- The offensive line is still sporadic and hasn’t found its groove run blocking (USC game notwithstanding). While I am hopeful that the re-emergence of Wicks last week will help loosen things up a bit there, I cannot see this team winning 2 or more games in November if it can’t figure out how to run the ball successfully inside the five yard line. Moreover, as we saw last week, it is pretty darn hard to throw the ball over the top if the opponents’ linebackers are able to drop back 10-15 yards into coverage as soon as the ball is snapped. And so, in order to create space vertically, we’re going to need to find ways to keep teams honest beyond the shovel pass. And to that point, it would be REALLY nice to see that power run threat emerge early in these games as a tone setter.
- The punting game has been inexcusably awful—to the point where it should have mitigated our turnover advantage the past two games. Simply put, there is ZERO practical difference between a 20 yard punt and a Luke Falk INT. And so, if this team dares to dream about winning 10 or more games in the regular season it needs to figure out how to stop the bleeding with the punting game. And that may mean permanently nixing the Kyle Sweet experiment and potentially the Erik Powell one as well.
Of course, this team is hearing about these limitations daily at practice. So, the question is whether or not they are listening to them or reading their own press clippings. My sense is that they are listening: The seniors, knowing that there is no margin for error given Washington’s prominence, will be ready to go tonight and for each of the week’s that follow. And thankfully, I think that our youth is still so darn young that they have to focus because the still may not know entirely what they are doing on the field.
So, the main barrier to the Cougs and Championship run, my view is injuries and addressing their own improvement priorities. And so, with a half a season left to play, my hope is that if guys are even remotely ready to contribute, then its high time for Grinch and company to start burning some of those LB redshirts.
The Keys to the Game
As everyone knows by now, at the start of the season, CAL was widely forecast to be the Cellar Dwellers of the Pac-12 North. To their credit, the Bears disregarded that criticism and raced to a 3-0 start, with victories against North Carolina (on the road) and Ole Miss at home. Following that start, folks were justly naming Justin Wilcox as an early season candidate for National Coach of the Year.
Unfortunately for the Bears, their competitive loss to USC accompanied the realization that North Carolina and Ole Miss are really bad football teams. And so, as the Bears have faced a ridiculous gauntlet of 3 “Top10” teams in four weeks, their promise and mettle have seemed to fizzle in tandem.
The good news for the Bears is that they rank in the Top15 nationally in takeaways. Moreover, while the Bears do not do anything especially well offensively, they are multiple. To this point, I have been especially impressed in CAL’s ability to convert in short yardage situations against SC as well as UNC and Ole Miss. And so, if the Bears can nab a couple of TO’s from the Cougs, get ahead of the Chains, and capatilize on a #SpecialForces miscues, they can and will create a bit of a horror show tonight.
Moreover, while I don’t think that the Cougar seniors will feel the weight of the Top10 ranking, I am not entirely sure that the same can be said about the Freshman. The remedy? Light the Bears up early and often and put this game in the bag by the middle of the third quarter.
The Keys to Winning
Will Luke Falk Throw for 400 Yards Tonight? NO. I think he’ll be around 380 yards with 4 touchdowns.
Will WSU run for more than 100 yards tonight? YES. And we better. If you want to protect against further injuries on the defense, then you want to keep them off the field. Moreover, when you’re a road favorite and are getting dinged up, you want to take care of business, shrink the game a bit, and go home. I would expect us to follow Leach’s lead in the Oregon game and run the ball a lot in the 4th quarter. Give us 150 on the ground as a result.
Will WSU Score 35 or more points a game? See below, but it’s worth noting that we have failed to reach that threshold the last two weeks. However, if we can get to 35 points in each of the next six games, I believe we will finish no worse than 11-1.
Will WSU be +1 or better in Turnover Margin? Yes. I think we’ll be +2. But beyond the injury bug, this is where we can lose this game—by putting the ball on the carpet multiple times. #Focus
CAL can throw the ball better than Oregon sans Herbert, but their WR corps is even more diminished through injury than Oregon’s, and they can’t run the ball nearly as well as the Quack. The key question mark for us is the health of our DB’s given Molton’s injury last week as well as the fact that Strong appeared to get hurt on the game’s last play. That said, if both of those guys are available, then one would expect us to stack the box, force some early third and longs, and then LOOK OUT!
On offense, I was very encouraged to see IJM emerge as a vertical threat last week. So, with Martin sure to face his share of double teams, I look for both IJM and Bell to have big nights. And man, it would be really nice to see us put up 14 points in the first quarter and really take it to the Bears early.
Ultimately, as long as this team stays healthy, it seems hard to imagine the #SpeedD giving up more than 17 to this CAL team outside of Garbage time. Meanwhile, I think that our offense is primed for a bit of a breakthrough tonight, provided it can avoid a sluggish start.
So, let’s call it Cougs 41 Bears 17, allowing the Cougs an extra day to rest and heal before next week’s Homecoming game against Colorado. #FowlerCup
USC 23 Utah 17. Nail biter in LA-LA land, setting the stage for SC to get waxed next week in South Bend. I know our injury situation is bad, but SC has already lost 9 guys for the season and have 23 on this week’s injury report. YIKES! The good news for Troy: A win against the Utes represents nails 1-10 on the 13 nail coffin called the Pac-12 South race, unless Arizona State can…
Arizona 48 UCLA 45. While I remain unconvinced that RichRod can recruit the talent he needs to win big in Tuscon, I still think he’s an elite coach and offensive mind. I can’t say the same thing about Jim Mora’s UCLA Bruins. This game is a major tipping point contest for both teams; winner stays in the hunt for upper division finish and Foster Farms-Sun Bowl type bowl, while the loser gets their coach a step closer to the unemployment line.
Stanford 31 Oregon 17. Ducks should be able to run the ball a bit against Stanford’s less-than-dominant defensive front. Problem for the Ducks is that the Cardinal secondary is the best in the conference and that means that the TO battle should tilt squarely on the side of the Trees. This game will be closer than the score indicates.
Colorado 31 Oregon State 17. I expect the Beavs to give this game everything they have for a half before the typical second half meltdown ensues. What a tough year for the Orange and Black and their fans.
UW 35 ASU 31. If this were the Cougs, I would put this one squarely in the Sun Devil victory column. All the indicators for an upset are there: The Devils are at home—where they already beat Oregon WITH Herbert—they’re coming off a bye, the Huskies never play well there, AND the Pups have yet to play anyone with a pulse. I expect this one to be a last possession affair, with the Browning hitting Pettis on a late touch with under 2 minutes remaining.
Texas 28 Oklahoma 24. I am a huge Tom Herman fan and so I admittedly could be blinded by my admiration of his coaching prowess. But Lincoln Riley is still green, I don’t trust Ole Yeller as a D-Coordinator, and the Texas team I saw play USC is one of the Top 15 teams I’ve seen play all year. When you factor in that Okey might be staring at 2 losses following this one, here’s to thinking that the Sooners get tight late. HOOK EM!
That’s all the time I have for today. Enjoy the game tonight folks—cuz as I said last week, seasons like this one don’t come around very often. And even though its tempting and appealing to think otherwise, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever have one again.
All for now. Go Cougs!