May the best Cougar win
A new era of Washington State Cougars football begins this week, as first-year head coach Mike Leach takes the sidelines for the first time donning the crimson and gray.
Nine months of eagerness and excitement for the future of football on the Palouse will commence in a road tilt against a perennial powerhouse on primetime television — kick starting the 2012 college football season.
Matchup: Washington State +12.5 at Brigham Young -12.5
Venue: LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo, UT)
Game Time, TV: 7:15 PM (PST), ESPN
Date: Thursday, August 30, 2012
Weather: 86 High, 62 Low, Partly Cloudy
Team Records: Washington State (0-0) BYU (0-0)
Standings: Season Opener
Game notes and How they matchup
It was a tale of two tapes for both Cougars teams last season. For BYU, 2011 resulted in yet another 10-win campaign under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, his fifth such season since 2005 when he took over as head coach. Although, the Cougars of BYU, who finished 10-3, beat just two teams (Ole Miss and Tulsa) who finished the season with a winning record.
For Washington State, 2011 ended without reaching a bowl game for the the eighth consecutive season. WSU stumbled to a 4-8 record, resulting in the firing of former head coach Paul Wulff, who went just 9-40 in four seasons in Pullman.
Leach and outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons, both BYU alums, make their return to Provo in a game that should create fireworks on a nationally televised stage. Washington State enters the contest as 13.5-point underdogs on the road with the over/under set at 61 points.
Both teams enter the season with senior signal callers in Jeff Tuel and BYU’s Riley Nelson. The two quarterbacks are more than capable in the pocket but, more importantly, they both boast viable threats rolling out and on-the-run.
Nelson and Tuel will employ similar offensive schemes. Washington State will look to throw the ball early and often whereas BYU will look to establish the run early in hopes of setting up their passing attack.
What to watch: Washington St.
With a complete overhaul of the coaching staff in place, the most important thing to watch out for is how well the offense and defense have grasped the new systems.
For the offense, it will be interesting to see how much progress they have made since the Spring Game, where Tuel looked surgical running the Air Raid. For the defense, how much work is there still to be done comprehending their new assignments after switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense.
Two years removed from coaching at Texas Tech, I fully expect Leach to have added some wrinkles to his famed offense.
The pistol formation has become increasingly popular since Leach’s controversial exit from Lubbock, and with the addition of running backs coach Jim Mastro, a pistol guru, you can expect there to be a wide variety of formations that the offense will throw at the BYU defense.
And lastly, how much has this team matured after yet another losing season? It’s one thing to say that they’re confident heading into the the game, but it’s another thing to go out and prove it in a hostile environment on the road.
If they fall behind by a couple touchdowns in the first half, how will they respond?
We shall find out.
What to watch: Brigham Young
After taking over for an ineffective Jake Heaps early in the year, Nelson quarterbacked the BYU Cougars to a 6-1 record and solidified himself as the starting quarterback heading into the 2012 season. As mentioned earlier, under Nelson, the Cougars won just one game against a team that finished with a winning record (Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl).
With Washington State expected to be much more competitive in 2012, how will Nelson fair against — what should be –an improved Cougars defense.
More notably, a defense focused on disrupting the quarterback’s rhythm with various blitz’s and pressure off the edges.
Switching gears, BYU is expected to run the ball with more frequency behind a big and experienced offensive line. In 2011, BYU didn’t have a single 100-yard rusher in 13 games. With that said, how much will Mendenhall rely on his running game behind a shuffled, but tremendously experienced, offensive line?
Their ability to run the ball will hinge upon how much Nelson will be relied upon in the passing game.
Washington St. Offense vs. BYU Defense
It’s pretty apparent that WSU is going to throw the ball upwards of 50 times a game so the BYU pass-defense is going to have their hands full with receivers running every which way in the unorthodox Air Raid.
Focusing on the BYU secondary, the unit finished 2011 ranked 41st in the nation in interceptions (13) and 32nd in passing defense (200.9 passing yards per game). Their secondary returns two starters, senior cornerback Preston Hadley and junior strong safety Daniel Sorenson, their leader in the defensive backfield.
Departed from last season are BYU’s two best defensive backs in cornerback Corby Eason and free safety Travis Uale, opening the door for Tuel and the WSU offense to send the BYU secondary through a little-bit of a learning curve.
BYU had trouble getting to the quarterback in 2011, so if the offensive line can hold their blocks, Tuel should have enough time to make the necessary reads in the Cougars’ quick strike offense.
However, that is subject to change as BYU returns their top defensive lineman from 2011 coupled with a scary linebacking core featuring Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy.
The Washington State offense will need to be focused against a very disciplined and experienced BYU defense.
BYU Offense vs. Washington St. Defense
In 2011, BYU ranked 41st in the country in total offense (405.6 yards per game) and ranked 5th in third-down conversion percentage (51.7%). On the other hand, WSU struggled defensively, finishing the season ranked 82nd in total defense (409.5 yards per game).
WSU will have their hands full as BYU returns a large majority of their playmakers.
In addition to Nelson, BYU returns three productive receivers including Cody Hoffman who caught 61 balls for 936 yards and 10 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore. Also returning is sophomore Ross Apo, who had a breakout freshman season.
Hoping to slow down the BYU passing attack is Washington State’s secondary which returns three starters in what should be a vastly improved defensive backfield.
BYU will, more than likely, look to pound the ball on the ground against an obviously depleted defensive line that lacks size but will attempt to make up for it with their speed and technique.
The BYU offensive line has 77 starts among them, which will be a welcoming sign to rarely used running back Michael Alisa, who will be taking over the featured carries in the Cougars offense.
The BYU offense wants to pass the ball about 65% of the time but if they find that they can have a large amount of success via the ground game, I fully expect them to ride their running backs as far as they’ll take them.
WSU vs BYU Prediction and Analysis
This isn’t going to be a make or break game for either team but it sure feels that way from a Washington State perspective. More importantly, however, this is a chance for both teams to figure out what kind of team they will be working with this season.
You can only get so much of an idea going up against one another in practice — Thursday, it becomes real.
BYU is going to be tough test but I expect Washington State to play toe-to-toe with their Cougar counterparts.
Tuel should be able to run the offense with enough success to put the required points on the board to win the game but can the defense make enough stops to give the Cougars of Washington State the win is the million dollar question.
All in all, I think that the team that wins the turnover battle wins this game. Ultimately, of course, I think it’s going to be a Crimson Party in Provo — no drinking allowed obviously.