Happy Holidays to you, Followers. Hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and/or a Festive Festivus.
I wanted to take a few moments today to provide a few takes on the Pac-12 and the upcoming bowl season, starting with the Cougs but also extending to the two other games that I think will be big for the conference’s reputation nationally (namely, the Rose and Redbox Bowl).
But first a few words about the Cougs…
To begin, I’ve had multiple conversations with folks from Alabama and Florida since the start of December about WSU Football. What was striking to me about those conversations (mostly during Christmas parties) was how much folks knew about the program—and not only about Leach—but also our record over the past few years, our multi-year appearance in the Top10, etc.. Moreover, nearly all of the folks I talked to lamented (without being prompted) that we were not selected to play in a NY6 (Alabama fans really wanted to see us play LSU), and all of them had surprising knowledge about several of our players (namely Minshew, but also the “kid named Boobie?” and “that Number 21 kid who is really good?”).
And based on all that, a lot of those folks have the Alamo Bowl circled as a key game they want to watch this bowl season, since most folks have heard a lot about Matt Campbell and they all want to watch a “really good” Mike Leach coached team play in “non-blizzard conditions.”
Ultimately, the upshot of those conversations is that it seems like WSU is squarely on the cusp of becoming a National Program (like UW, Stanford, Oregon, and obviously USC). And so, it seems that if the Cougs can find their way to a W on Friday, the doors will be open for us to take that important next step onto the national stage. And honestly, the size and speed that I am seeing in our latest recruiting classes makes it seem like we are well on our way to doing just that!
While the immediate future of WSU Football seems especially promising, the fortunes of the conference feel like they’re trending hard in the opposite direction. And in my view, the primary reason for the conference’s national woes have less to do with Larry Scott and the conference’s officiating—although solving both problems would certainly help—and have more to do with the overall lack of size of the Pac-12 offensive and defensive lines. And while the so-called “measurables” of some Pac-12 teams appear to ‘line up’ on paper with other big time programs, if you’ve had the chance to get on or near some of the players from these other conferences, you know that not all 6 foot 5, 315lb guys look alike. Indeed, I think it would be hard to find someone who has been around nationally who would claim that “our guys” look anything like “their guys”, particularly when “their guys” come from the B1G or the SEC.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Pac-12 can’t compete with those teams—I mean, we saw mediocre UCLA teams match-up just fine with Texas A&M in 2016 and 2017, for example. But it is to say that most of the time that the conference has faced A-list competition, it has done so as an underdog—at least from a physical standpoint.
And that overall size differential frames the backdrop of the conference’s primary bowl games this year. I’m going to begin with a few thoughts about the Cougs in the Alamo, and I then will provide a quick glimpse of the Redbox and Rose Bowls, respectively.
The Alamo Bowl
As soon as the match-up for the Alamo Bowl was announced, I thought to myself—“well, if we take these guys seriously at all, we are going to sleep walk our way to 11 wins.” Then I started to watch Iowa State play and my disposition went from pretty dour (“Oh my god, these guys might kill us”) to fairly optimistic (“Ah, we’re good enough to beat these guys. Probably.”).
As most of you probably know, Iowa State features a pretty stingy 3-2-6 defense, although they offer varying defensive fronts. In the trenches, they’re pretty BIG averaging slightly over 300 pounds on the DL. And as I mentioned earlier, the 300 pounds they’ll throw at our Offensive Line are going to be a BIG 300 pounds.
In the back, the Cyclones play fast and furious. For most of the-season, they have enticed teams to run the ball against their three man front. And when they do, they tend to crash their two linebackers plus a safety (or two) straight toward the middle to attack the ball carrier. This strategy puts teams consistently in 3rd and 4 situations at which point Iowa State typically shifts to a five man front where they send blitzers from various places while playing a combination of zone and press man coverage. The result is that, like UW, they seldom give up big plays, and they force teams to play disciplined and patient football—which is hard for many Big12 teams that play a much more vertically-oriented version of the Air Raid.
The good news is—and I think there is good news—is that some teams have figured out the ISU defense at various times during the year. The main success points have been to run the ball North-South off tackle and to hit a bunch of intermediate routes up the middle. So, if you’re looking for potential stars of the game for WSU offensively, then Boobie, Borghi, Harris, Calvin, Sweet, and Bell seem to be the most likely candidates. That’s not to say that the outside guys can’t or won’t get their touches and yards, but I would bet that, if WSU is successful on Friday night, it will be because our Running Backs and inside receivers went off.
On offense, Iowa State is multiple and looks and plays a lot like Boise State in years when they are really good. The key to their offense, in my view, is their Freshman Quarterback Brock Purdy who is a real gamer and a true rising star. He reminds me a lot of Jake Browning as a sophomore only more mobile. David Montgomery is a really good back, Butler is a MASSIVE target at WR, and they have two other guys on the outside who are pretty darn good. Oh yeah, they also have a really good freshman TE and FB that they move around a lot out of double TE sets. Like I said, they’re multiple and they run a LOT of counter plays out of that shifting double TE set.
The big thing about Iowa State is that they don’t stretch teams vertically very well, so they don’t seem especially well equipped to play from behind. But they do have the kind of ball control offense that can really frustrate a team like WSU. And so, if we aren’t able to keep our offense on the field for consistent stretches of the game, the table will be set for their offense to really, REALLY wear us down. And of course, that would pose BIG trouble for our chances to play the kind of fourth quarter ball we’ve seen from this team in the vast majority of games in 2018.
General Alamo Outlook
If I had to bet the farm on this game I would put my money on the Cougs. There are a few reasons for my optimism, but I’ll offer the two big ones here. First, I think it’s important to remember that since the Stanford game, this team has played in pretty terrible conditions, starting with a rain storm against CAL, a 20mph swirling wind at Colorado, a 21 degree night against Arizona, and then the slush storm game in the Apple Cup. All of those games, less the Arizona game, have perhaps dampened people’s perceptions about how good this team and offense can be. And there’s a big part of me that thinks that the depth and variety of weapons we have at our disposal are going to show up in spades on Friday.
Second: In my near 12 hours of “film watching”, I noticed that Iowa State’s offensive line tends to stand up a lot. Mind you that doesn’t necessarily mean anything given their scheme, play calling, and whatnot, but we have absolutely blown up the last two teams we played that had Offensive Lines that didn’t win the pad level battle (Colorado and Arizona). And so, there’s a part of me that thinks that the Speed D might be able to live in the ISU backfield and make life miserable for that nifty Iowa State offense. If this happens, then we might see a comfortable win that yields less than 40 points overall. That, my friends, is why some folks are suggesting that the best bet in this game is to take the under of 56.
That all said, I keep returning to the aforementioned size issue. To this point, earlier in the season, I had the *pleasure* of watching (what turned out to be) a 6-6 Oklahoma State team absolutely DESTROY Boise State in Stillwater. What was disturbing to me about that game was the extent to which Boise got absolutely KILLED on both lines of scrimmage. As BSU quarterback Brett Rypien noted after that game “Their D-line I thought did a good job. You don’t want to get into 3rd and long against that defense.”
Of course, statistically, Oklahoma State’s defense turned out to be downright awful against those Big12 offenses. But they sure looked BIG, FAST, and MEAN versus Boise. And again, the Size and Speed issue loom as big X factors in this one. Sadly, the Alamo Bowl could be the first indication that the Pac-12 conference is under-matched physically relative to its P5 brethren.
Confidence in a WSU Victory: 59%
Those of you who hang out with me on Twitter know that I have a Jeckyll and Hyde personality when it comes to the Oregon Ducks. On one hand, I love their speed, their flash, their defensive coordinator, and especially their Quarterback. The problem that I have with the Ducks is that with the exception of their FANTASTIC win over the University of Washington earlier this year, the Ducks have not fared well against the best teams they’ve played dating back to the pasting they received in the Vegas Bowl last year.
And while the pundits seem to think that the Ducks are going to have too much offense for Sparty on Monday, I’m inclined to think otherwise. That is, until the Ducks show that they can handle a good defense away from Autzen, I’m thinking that Michigan State’s defense is going to overwhelm the Ducks’ offense. And while Michigan State’s offense isn’t anything to write home about, it wasn’t very good last year either—and that didn’t stop the men in green from CRUSHING a pretty decent WSU defense last year in the Holiday Bowl. And Michigan State, much like Utah, always seem to show up for their bowl game.
In short, I think that this game is going to go the way of Sparty in a manner that isn’t going to make the Pac-12 look very good.
Confidence in a Michigan State Win: 63%
The Rose Bowl
Up until the Michigan game, I watched Ohio State play and hoped that we could play them in the Rose Bowl because their secondary play was so poor. And then they played Michigan and it felt like a sleeping giant awoke. That’s not to say, of course, that the Ohio State defense is without its warts. But it is to say that they are playing MUCH better than the group that got blitzed by the likes of Purdue and Maryland earlier in the year. Moreover, that Ryan Day offense is now firing on all cylinders, including the running game, and the Bucks should be especially motivated to send out Urban Meyer on a high note.
Meanwhile, Washington is about as Jekyll and Hyde as a really good team can get. Obviously, the Dawgs are absolutely nails in the back seven, and I think the play of that group is going to help them keep the score down against tOSU. But offensively, the Dawgs consistently vacillate between a really competent ball-control outfit and an out-of-sorts emotional train wreck. On the plus side, Myles Gaskin and Hunter Bryant represent two guys who could experience a lot of success against the Buckeyes sometimes suspect defense. And while Jake Browning has had SO MANY ISSUES this year, he always seems to be at his best whenever he is counted out. And this sure seems like one of those games where the expectations of him are so low that he seems poised to play one of his best games.
But in the end, I keep coming back the first half of the Fiesta Bowl last year where Washington got absolutely HAMMERED up front by Penn State—and that was with Vita Vae in tow. And this year, I think that we’re going see an Ohio State team that is going to be able to control the ball against the Huskies’ good-but-not-great defensive front and then beat them in the short passing game when UW fails to mount a consistent pass rush.
Ultimately, I think the Dawgs’ back 7 is good enough to make this game close. And honestly, if I was a betting man (which I am not), I would think long and hard about taking the Huskies and the 6 points because I think Chris Petersen is going to coach his rear end off in this one. I don’t, however, see UW winning this game.
Confidence in Ohio State victory: 75%
All in all, the conference needs one heckuva bowl season to silence the myriad doubters, haters, and critics. And clearly, a win by the Cougs would not only help quiet some of those perceptions, it would also help to launch the Cougs into the Top10 for 2018 and possibly the pre-season Top20 in 2019.
But winning this Friday is not going to be easy—far from it. Moreover, I think we’ll find that if we come up short on Friday evening, we will find ourselves surrounded by other teams in the Pac-12 conference who find themselves a bit too undersized to hang with the big boys under the bright lights of bowl season.
That all said, I can’t wait to get to San Antonio on Friday and see these young men in person once again! Let’s go get that school record 11th victory, fellas!
All for now. Go Cougs.