The Climb Begins

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State
Nov 4, 2017; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach points to the scoreboard during a replay of the previous play against the Stanford Cardinal in the second half at Martin Stadium. The Cougars won 24-21. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Cougar Football Saturday to you Followers!   I hope you all are doing great.

Today, our Washington State Cougars take on the (mighty?) Wyoming Cowboys in a game that for me has all the feel of a Spring Game were it not for the fact that the outcome of this game actually counts.

And the reason for that sentiment is as follows: I truly have no idea whether or not we’re going to be good, bad, or middling this season.

So, recognizing that we’re all kind of spitballing about the Cougs right now, here are a few headers that I think will serves as story lines for this team’s fortunes—not only for today—but for the season overall.

  1. The Offense is going to improve.

One of the question marks that folks have talked about in recent weeks concerns the state of our offensive line, particularly the interior of it.  And for good reason.  Three of our offensive linemen will be making their first D1 starts today, with only Liam Ryan appearing in ANY D1 games prior to this one. When you factor in the inexperience we have at the Quarterback position—at least with respect to games played at WSU—well, this group is pretty green.

The downside of that inexperience is that guys are bound to make a bunch of mistakes and my sense is that we’ll see several of them today. The upside is that most believe that this group has a lot of talent, and so as the offense’s experience grows, the execution is going to improve–and perhaps rapidly. I honestly believe we’re going to become a potent offensive force this season. The question in my mind is not IF that happens, but WHEN?

  1. The Defensive Line is going to wear down.

At this point, we all know that our D-line is small, thin, and well, pretty banged up.  But we also know that Tracy Claeys has been pretty adamant since the Spring Game that the defensive line is NOT an area of concern for him.  And that’s great and encouraging–at least in some respects.

At the same time, my experience in watching this game called football indicates that teams that are small and lack depth wear down within games, as well as throughout the season.  And I would expect the same out of this group today and for the foreseeable future: They’ll start off games fine but a tiring and thinning is bound to happen.

For this reason, if we are to have a reasonable chance at a good or decent season,  our offense will need to possess the ball early in games.  In contrast, if we have a bunch of three and outs early, some of these games—including today’s—could get out-of-hand before they even begin. (see Washington and Michigan State games in 2017 as prime examples).

  1. The Backs represent our Most Important Position Group.

Everyone with a pulse knows what teams do when they have difficulty stopping the run.  They put 8 in the box and they (run) blitz. And when that happens, they leave their corners and secondary out on an Island.  So, if you’re looking for the most important position players on the field, I give you Hunter Dale, Sean Harper, and Darrien Molton (as well as their back-ups).

If these guys can hold their own on the outside (and in Dale’s case, during pass protection), then the strength and depth of our LBs will make this defense respectable.  And if our offense improves/.matures at a decent clip, this team could be awfully dangerous by the USC game.

  1. Wide Receivers May Be the Real Key to the Air Raid.

For a long time, many of us—myself included—have viewed the Quarterback as the most important position in the Air Raid offense.   And to be clear, quality QB play remains essential to the success of the Air Raid, especially WSU’s version of it.

But in order to be a good quarterback in this system—you’ve got to have guys to throw to.  And to this point, it is not a coincidence in my mind that WSU’s passing attack suffered most of last year as well as the end of 2016 when our WR group was either (a) Thinned out because of injuries and/or (b) Inexperienced as it was for most of last year.

This year, WSU, has as deep and experienced of a unit as it has had since Leach’s arrival.   And the experience of this group is especially pronounced on the inside.  Moreover, this group, as a whole, has a combination of size and speed that we haven’t seen since 2014—when we had a group that combined for 5700 yards and 45 touchdowns.  Now, will we see that kind of production out of this group?  Probably not.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re near 4500 yards through the Air at season’s end, in large part, because of our WR’s but also because I think that Gardner Mayfield is going to distribute the ball quickly.

  1. Three is the hidden key.

Whether you’re a middling team trying to get to 6-6 as I think this Cougar team is, or a team trying to stay in a Division title race, you need a good kicking game. In 2016, we lost the Boise State  and Eastern games—arguably—due to the fact that our kicker got the yips.

Then last year, despite significant improvement by our defense overall, our redzone defense just wasn’t that good.

So, in order to meet or exceed the 6 wins threshold this year, we’re going to need to be able to make 43 yard field goals consistently and we’re going to need to be adept at holding teams to three when they get inside of the RedZone.


Today’s game is going to be determined  by two factors: (1) Who wins the turnover battle; and (2) Who is the most balanced on offense with respect to form and production.

Both QBs in this game are going to be asked to make plays against secondaries that are formidable. And so, you can bet that both guys are going to throw AT LEAST  a couple of picks. The question is which of those mistakes will prove to be the most consequential?

Which, if any of our INTs, will result in taking points OFF the board, and which, if any, of theirs will be responsible for putting points ON the board?

Personally, I think that our back 7 has been quietly overlooked in the build up to this game, especially since I think Jalen Thompson is an All-American candidate and Harper is a ball hawk. And to this point, I think a takeaway from our defense is going to be a decider in this one.

Regarding the “other factor”, well, I put it here last year on the Blog:  Since the start of the 2016 seaosn, when the Cougar Running Backs get 20 or more carries in a game we are 14-1. In games where our RBs have carried the ball less than 20 timees, we are 3-8.


I honestly believe that Leach has a plan to run the ball today so that he can keep the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and create opportunities to stretch the field vertically. I also think that our experience in the Back 7 is going to be key in forcing Wyoming into a couple of really costly turnovers.

Ultimately, this game, in my view, is going to be won or lost in the first quarter.  IF we can keep the game close early and at least gain a draw in time of possession through the first quarter and half we’ll be fine.  If not, we’re going to see the same type of game we saw against Nevada in 2014 and Boise State in 2016 and we’ll go down 30-17 or some such.

But I think we’ll hang in there early and gain some offensive rhythm in the second half.  Boobie and Borghi will combine for 21 carries, yielding 110 yards on the ground and two scores, and the Cougs will leave Laramie with an impressive 34-25 win.

And to be clear:  ANY WIN today will be most impressive in my book

Enjoy the game today, Coug fans.  The climb is always the most fun AND the most interesting, and with today, a new climb begins in earnest.

All for now. Go Cougs!

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