The Cougs are again being talked about in national circles as Mike Leach and his staff this offseason have provided a gargantuan change to the energy surrounding Washington State football. During my time covering spring ball this March and April, you could see the difference in the players. The new drills were a positive change. They were being tested each day.
And WSU will be a better team in 2012.
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But it takes time for a new staff to get their types of players into the program and grown up. It takes time for new systems and all their nuances to be installed and fully realized. Success won’t present itself overnight. There’s a big difference between practicing against one another and putting all that hard work to use in a game-day situation.
That said, WSU will without question win in 2012. The Cougs will go to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 and the turnaround will have truly begun.
Here’s my look at the 2012 season and how things will shape up for Leach and crew in Year One.
Aug. 30: at BYU
Comment: It will be a classic offensive battle royale Thursday night, but WSU’s inability to put pressure on BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson will hurt them throughout the evening. QB Jeff Tuel will throw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, but it won’t be enough in WSU’s season opening 38-28 loss.
Sept. 8: vs. Eastern Washington
Comment: Following the loss at BYU, the Cougs have a solid week of practice and defensive coordinator Mike Breske cuts game film like a madman to make the necessary adjustments. The Cougars defense rebounds in style and holds the Eagles’ offense to two touchdowns in the 41-17 WSU victory.
Sept. 14: at UNLV
Comment: The Cougars come out of the gates hot and don’t let up on offense. Tuel throws for a season high five touchdowns. Two of them go to WR Marquess Wilson, two to WR Andrei Lintz and freshman Gabe Marks caps off his first collegiate 100-yard game with a late fourth quarter touchdown grab.
Sept. 22: vs. Colorado
Comment: Colorado enters the game hoping to rebound from a heartbreaking 2011 loss to WSU in Boulder. Things don’t go as planned, with the Homecoming crowd in Pullman posing problems for first year QB and Kansas transfer Jordan Webb. The Buffs keep the game tight through the first three quarters but 14 unanswered points by the Cougs in the final period seals the victory.
Sept. 29: vs. Oregon at Century Link Field in Seattle
Comment: The Cougs have won three straight games and have all the confidence in the world heading into their battle with the Ducks. WSU is quickly brought back to earth by Oregon’s dominating performance under the Seattle lights. The Cougar defense has no response throughout for the Ducks’ high powered threats, led by sophomore De’Anthony Thomas. Meanwhile the WSU offense can’t do enough to try and keep the game tight.
Oct. 6: at Oregon State
Comment: Oregon State is coming off three straight losses: vs. Wisconsin, at UCLA and at Arizona. Unfortunately for the Cougs, the Beavers bounce back and take out their aggression on the WSU defense led by sophomore sensation Sean Mannion. Tuel and the rest of the offense have their first sluggish performance of the year and Mike Leach becomes an internet sensation on Youtube with post game videos of him letting the expletives fly in the Cougar locker room.
Oct. 13: vs. California
Comment: Cal has won two straight games (ASU and UCLA) and overlook the Cougs for their showdown in Pullman. Defensive lineman Xavier Cooper haunts QB Zach Maynard throughout the game and sacks him twice. Cooper’s pressure also leads to rushed throws by the lefty and three interceptions. The offense responds with 400-plus total yards of offense and the Wazzu faithful go home with a W in addition to their new Mike Leach bobblehead.
Oct. 20: BYE
Comment: The bye couldn’t come at a better time for the Cougars who are dealing with scrapes and bruises on the injury front. WSU uses the week off to get healthy and begin their preparations for a clash with Stanford in Palo Alto.
Oct. 27: at Stanford
Comment: The Cougars make Cardinal RB Stephan Taylor look like a Heisman Trophy winner. The senior explodes for 180 yards and two touchdowns and it feels worse than that. Worse, the established run game leads to several play-action sequences where WSU defensive backs get beat on long touchdown passes by junior QB Josh Nunes. WSU avoids a blowout, but Stanford handles them easily at home.
Nov. 3: at Utah
Comment: Utah’s size on the offensive line proves to be too much for WSU. This is the one game on the schedule where I see the Cougars being dominated from The Opening whistle to the final gun and suffer their worst loss of the year. Cougar fans start to panic a little bit and worry that the bowl game curse will continue this season.
Nov. 10: vs. UCLA
Comment: Hope is restored on the Palouse as the Cougs end their two-game skid and handle the Bruins at home. Marks leads the Cougars’ offense with 175 receiving yards, while Lintz crests the 50 reception mark with two games still left on the regular season schedule.
Nov. 17: at Arizona State
Comment: The Cougs find a way to win on the road in Tempe. ASU is completely banged up from the previous week, a 38-14 loss to USC in Los Angeles. The Cougars take advantage and show up with more energy, flying across the field on offense and defense. The Cougs get their sixth win of the season and become bowl eligible. Mike Leach and the WSU logo are all over ESPN and cbssports.com following the win.
Nov. 24: vs. Washington
Comment: It’s a scintillating, edge of your seat thriller. Husky QB Keith Price finds WR Kasen Williams with 18 seconds left to tie the game up at 31-all and send it to overtime. After each team scores a TD on their first OT possession, senior safety Tyree Toomer (who comes into the game in relief of freshman Taylor Taliulu) picks off a Price throw over the middle intended for TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
On the Cougars very next play, Tuel fires a WR screen to Wilson who bursts upfield. UW cornerback Desmond Trufant desperately dives for Wilson, and a shoe string tackle brings him down at the two yard line. Mike Leach, to the dismay of the WSU partisans, decides to bring out the kicking unit on second down and go for the win. He looks like a genius, because a low snap from LS Alex Den Bleyker ricochets off place holder David Gilbertson’s helmet. Fortunately for WSU, kicker Andrew Furney scoops up the ball and has the wherewithal to escape out of the pocket and fire the ball out of bounds.
On third-down, a perfect snap is delivered from Den Bleyker and Furney drills the 19-yard field goal straight through the uprights to give WSU an unforgettable 41-38 win.
Bowl berth: Yes
Comment: Cougar fans are able to pack their bags and spend the holidays someplace warm. The bowl berth will solidify a pair of four star offensive commitments as part of the 2013 class and Leach’s first year in Pullman is deemed a big success far and wide.
In order for all this to happen, there are a few things that need to occur. For starters, the offensive line has to remain healthy. The unit only has eight players on the first WSU depth chart that was released on Monday, an unsettling fact. Tuel needs to have time in the pocket to run a successful Air-Raid offense, and it’s up to the line to give it to him.
The defense is rather inexperienced in spots and some guys need to play beyond their years. LBs Darryl Monroe and Eric Oertel have to play with confidence and consistency. If the defense has any shot of containing Pac-12 offenses, those two will have to step up their efforts, along with LB Chester Sua. The defensive line is also thin, but I’m confident Cooper, once he returns, can have a breakout season under the direction of d-line coach Joe Salave’a.
Patience will be key for Cougar fans, but fortunately you’re used to it after having gone through the last few years. It’s going to be a fun season this year, with an extra game not seen since 2003. WSU football has been and always will be the most compelling thing about the fall -- but in 2012 the buzz will once again last through December.