There are no gimmes in the Pac-12 this season, but after three weeks of game-day data to analyze, Washington State is poised for its best season in a long time. The 2007 Cougs went 5-7 and the 2006 team was 6-6. This club figures to be on par with those and, given a good bounce or two, perhaps better. I am not going to guarantee a bowl game this season, but this is clearly a team that is going to be competitive week in and week out.
There are five reasons for this dramatic turnaround in the program:
1. DEFENSE: This group is exciting. The secondary flies around and the front seven can get after the passer. More important, they are able to create turnovers, which we haven’t seen on the Palouse in years. I’m still not sure about the run defense, but that may not be much of an issue in a conference with teams known for passing. What I love is that early in the year there is clearly a different type of confidence on the defensive side of the ball. These guys are going to be able to keep WSU in the majority of ball games this year.
2. THE SCHEDULE: The Cougs already took care of USC, they bypass a stout UCLA team, and they play three very beatable Pac-12 teams at home -- Oregon State, Arizona State and Utah. Additionally, a somewhat understated point now that Auburn and USC are out of the way is that they won’t have to go on the road in back-to-back games again the rest of the way. That’s a big deal, because the record is pretty clear in college football that the hind end of back-to-back road games are very difficult to win. The Cougs will have stiff road challenges at Cal, Oregon and Arizona, but they get back to home cookin’ after each one. As a former player I can tell you that Martin Stadium is a place where you always feel confident about getting a win, no matter who the opponent is.
CF.C'S MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK AS A HOUSTON TEXAN IN 2008.
3. CONNOR HALLIDAY: Yes, I have questioned some of his decision making early in the year. There is no doubt that ball security is still going to be paramount to Washington State’s success this year. However, Connor is the type of player you want under center when an offense is starting to get a rhythm. That is exactly what I think we are seeing with this group. There is growth and development taking place with this group of good, young playmakers. Mike Leach’s system is proven. Now it is time for the athletes to make it work. Halliday has all the physical tools you could ask for. He is going to be a lot of fun to watch as he continues to get comfortable with the offense and his confidence grows.
4. THE KICKING GAME: Andrew Furney is a difference maker. If you think that 41-yard field goal in the Coliseum to beat USC was a lock, you haven’t been watching football long enough. Nothing is a lock. But Furney certainly makes a case. He is outstanding, and he is going to win at least one more game for Washington State this year because of his leg. For a team that’s competitive, but not dominant, you can’t underestimate the importance of a great kicker. Case in point: three years before I arrived at WSU, during the 2000 season, the Cougars were highly competitive but lost three games in overtime and another one late in the fourth quarter. Not coincidentally, that team had horrible problems with placekicking, missing eight field goals and five PATs. Consequently, a team that was definitely bowl worthy ended up with a 4-7 record. If they had Andrew Furney on the roster, people would still be talking about them.
5. THE LEACH FACTOR: Before the start of last season I had the opportunity to talk with Coach Leach. I walked out of that meeting very impressed. Yet as his first WSU season dragged on, I, like many other people, found myself wondering about his methods. It is clear now that the doubt was misplaced. He has a plan and that plan is working. Just like those early years at Texas Tech, it is going to take a little time to really get things rolling, but the blueprint is proven. This team is better than last year and I truly believe they will do nothing but get better. That doesn’t necessarily mean victories over Stanford and Oregon, but it does mean that every Saturday will be one we all look forward to watching unfold.
3 OBSERVATIONS WHILE WATCHING THE SOUTHERN UTAH GAME:
1. The Cougar offense took advantage of some coverage miscues and worked the ball downfield much better in the passing game. Connor was particularly aggressive early on in short-yardage situations; he threw his first touchdown on a vertical route on third-and-two, and also went vertical on a second-and-two situation in that first quarter. I love this type of pass game, especially in the first half, because it puts pressure on the defense to defend vertical and softens up their coverage.
2. Washington State utilized an offensive set we hadn’t seen much of in the first two games. In a four-receiver personnel group, the Cougars put three receivers into the short side of the field and one receiver by himself to the wide side. Dominique Williams’ second touchdown pass came out of this formation and Halliday just overthrew Isiah Myers on another would-be touchdown. I love to see Coach Leach mix things up like this because it makes WSU less predictable. In addition, it almost guarantees a one-on-one matchup to the wide side of the field that I believe the Cougar receivers will take advantage of nearly every time.
3. The Washington State defense had another solid game, although Southern Utah had some early offensive success. In the end, the Cougar athletes were just too much for the Big Sky school. However, a great part of the defensive game plan was to create pressure from a 30 front (three defensive linemen.) With only three DL, WSU puts four good athletes on the field at linebacker who can drop into coverage or create mismatches against offensive linemen. Mike Breske had an excellent blitz package that led to multiple pressures on the Southern Utah quarterback. That great, one-handed interception by Daquawn Brown was a direct result of linebacker Jared Byers getting to the QB so quickly.
The Cougars are 30-something favorites against Idaho this week. A win as convincing as the one against Southern Utah will set a tone for Seattle Week and the start of Pac-12 play that should remind us all how fun it is to be part of a program that has a shot week in and week out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State from 2004-2007, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history – and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing three years in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2010-2012. Brink is currently the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10 .