An opportunity to prove relevancy
The Washington State Cougars, slapped with the label of bottom-dweller for nearly a decade, have a chance prove the naysayers wrong and create fireworks in a Pac-12 North this season.
The acquisition of Mike Leach and the implementation of the air raid offense has invigorated life into a once dormant fan base.
Not surprisingly, the Cougars are hungry to erase the horrific seasons of the past and begin a new era on the Palouse.
As we inch closer and closer to the beginning of fall camps and the start of the 2012 season it’s important to realize that expectations should temper for this Cougar football team but there are pieces in place that could make them valid sleepers in the Pac-12.
Flying under the radar
All the hoopla surrounding the Leach hire means nothing until they prove their worth on the field. As opposed to Oregon and USC, the Cougars find themselves in a peculiar position in that they don’t have any target on their back.
WSU is still the team that everyone expects to roll over to an easy win — and deservedly so –because they haven’t proven anything.
The only expectations are within this football team: reaching a bowl game.
Pundits have pegged Washington State to finish in last in the Pac-12 North in nearly every regular season prediction creating an euphoria that it’s them against the world.
There are weapons in place that say, “hey, this team is pretty good on paper but they’ve been so bad for so long so why should we worry about the WSU?”
That’s the kind mentality that WSU should want every opposing team to enter a game with. They just have to play football and take it one game at a time.
Washington State should love the position that they’re in. Sure, in time they want that target on their back but right now they’re the hunted but sleeping on this team — coming into a matchup with WSU knowing you’re going to win — could be troublesome.
A healthy Jeff Tuel
It’s been no secret. Since the days of Alex Brink the the quarterback position at Washington State has been a QB carousel.
And, injuries have played an enormous role in the shuffling of quarterbacks for the last four seasons.
Optimism thrived entering a week-one matchup against Idaho State last season. The Cougars showed strong improvements towards the end of the 2010 season and junior Jeff Tuel looked ready to take the reigns and lead the Cougars to their first bowl game in eight seasons.
After being a game time scratch due to the flu, Tuel was replaced by Marshall Lobbestael but was inexplicably entered into an already lopsided contest on the third drive only to suffer the aforementioned broken collarbone after being driven to the ground by an Idaho State defensive lineman.
No question about it, Lobbestael played exceptional in his back-up role for the majority of the season but it would be hard denying that the Cougars wouldn’t have reached a bowl game last season with a healthy Tuel.
This is Jeff Tuel‘s team. He’s completely healthy for the first time in his WSU tenure and his senior season ceiling is infinite.
After an impressive Spring Game, completing 19-of-21 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, the senior gunslinger should put up striking numbers in an offense he already looks more than comfortable within.
Given Tuel stays healthy, the Cougars will have a decided quarterback advantage over the majority of their opponents and makes the Cougars a tough team to beat on a weekly basis.
Fans in the seats
In the late 1990′s and early 2000′s, the Cougars were good. Really good.
Those 8-10 win teams created a fan frenzy atmosphere in Martin Stadium that made it one of the toughest places to play in the country. The fans are right on top of you and, although it is one of the smallest stadiums in D-1 football, the dimensions allow for deafening noise throughout the stadium.
With the hiring of Leach and Martin Stadium’s massive remodel, season tickets and donations have spiked.
It’s become tradition that the students attend the first half and, once the game is out of reach, everyone leaves to guzzle down more booze. This year, however, should be different.
The Cougars will undoubtedly be competitive each week and, for the first in recent memory, nearly every seat in Martin Stadium should be filled.
A full capacity stadium gives home teams extra incentive to compete for four quarters. It creates opposing team false starts and causes confusion resulting in unnecessary timeouts.
There’s already an electricity for Washington State football without a game even being played. If that excitement can translate over to Martin Stadium at full capacity it will bring back a home field advantage that disappeared 10 years ago.
Make no question about it, the Cougars have recently fielded some of the worst defensive units to ever wear the Crimson and Gray.
Last season, there was some slight improvement but they still ended the year ranked 82nd in total defense and gave up at least 30 points seven times.
Enter Mike Breske.
What Breske’s defenses have always done well is be create pressure by being aggressive and defending the pass superbly.
His defenses compare in philosophy to the Air Raid due to the fact that they want to attack early and often with exotic blitz packages in order to force bad throws to allow the secondary to react and create turnovers.
Thus, putting the ball in back in the offenses hands as quickly as possible.
Easier said than done.
But, Breske’s secondary’s have always ranked highly in yardage allowed and passes intercepted which bodes well for this Cougar secondary that returns a full boat. Depth and experience will be huge for a secondary that has caught itself chasing offensive players rather than bringing them to the ground.
Though, the linebacking core is a far from complete with the losses of C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi, there are viable replacements already getting plenty of work. A young core featuring explosive sophomore Chester Sua has everything but experience but their depth should allow them to grow as a unit.
The defensive line looked far more impressive this spring than in years past. Preseason Pac-12 first teamer Travis Long should be in line for another astounding in his new BUCK linebacker position – a hybrid between the line and the backer positions.
Xavier Cooper could be a sleeping giant on the edge after an impressive spring.
The move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 has been slow — as expected — but the players are embracing it and having fun running all over the field. They want to be fast all the way up until the last snap and their fiery new defensive coordinator won’t take anything less than 100%.
The defense is going the be the silver lining for the Cougars this season. More depth and experience should get the ball in the offenses hands more often – and we all know that’s a good thing in the Air Raid.
Any sort of improvement on the defensive side of the ball
should could speak volumes in WSU’s pursuit to end a nine-year bowl game drought.