The Rule of Tree staff was able to catch up with Jeff Nusser, the Managing Editor of the Coug Center from www.CougCenter.com, to learn more about the Washington State Cougars, and their high-flying offense that will be invading the Farm on Saturday evening.
Do you feel the course has been corrected on the season for the Cougars after the big win over the Oregon Ducks?
For the most part, yes. There were signs in the second half of the Idaho game that things were coming back together to the point we expected at the beginning of the season, and the entire game against the Ducks was really just an extension of that. I honestly feel like the Cougars came out of the gate a little tight at the beginning of the year; I mean, let’s be real -- expectations are not the norm around Pullman, but a 9-win season from a young team allowed fans to dream big for the first time in a while.
But instead of playing with confidence, the Cougs were tentative, particularly on defense (although the offense wasn’t exactly humming along, either). That, combined with some off-the-field distractions -- there were a number of arrests before the season, the first in years -- led to the losses against Eastern Washington and Boise State. But they now seem to have rediscovered much of that swagger that allowed them to finish so strong a year ago, and it’s allowed fans to feel like this team is back on track.
Luke Falk has played well the last few weeks, what has been the key to his success at Quarterback?
Like the rest of the team, this year hasn’t exactly gone as planned for Falk. The numbers look fine -- he’s right up there with the national leaders in just about every passing category -- but for those of us who have watched him every week, something was just … off. The decisions were slower and he seemed to be looking to throw only to guys who were wide, wide open instead of trusting his receivers to make plays on the ball. He was hesitant. That started to change against Idaho, and then last week looked like a return to what we expect: He was decisive and he made some well-timed throws into some tight windows to break some big plays. It certainly helped that Oregon could get next to no pressure on him, and I would guess that will be Stanford’s number one priority.
What will be the key for the Cougars defense in stopping the rush ability of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love?
Last season, it was the ability to penetrate and change the line of scrimmage before McCaffrey could get going. Will that work again? The Cougs certainly lost a lot of talent on the defensive line after last season, and the first couple of games of the season suggested we might be in for a rough go of it this year. But WSU did a masterful job containing Royce Freeman last week, attacking him like crazy -- outside of a 75-yard run when the game was already out of hand (not an excuse, but … yanno), Freeman gained less than 65 yards. I suspect they were able to do this because there wasn’t a lot of respect for Dakota Prukop’s ability to throw the ball; can the Cardinal throw it enough to keep WSU out of 100 percent attack mode?
James Williams and Jamal Morrow have been highly effective in the run game for the Cougars in 2016; do you see the Cougars offense lean more to the run this week against Stanford, or stick to the Air Raid offense that has proven so effective the last few weeks?
Well, to start with, an Air Raid that can run the ball effectively on 35 percent to 40 percent of its plays is probably the best version of the Air Raid. The reason the Cougs didn’t run the ball that much in Mike Leach’s first four years is because WSU just didn’t really have the personnel to do so, but that’s changed now: They have a huge, athletic line and a trio of quality running backs, including a burgeoning star in Williams. I doubt they’ll be able to run it as much or as successfully as they did against Oregon, but you’ll probably see more action on the ground from the Cougs than you have in past games between Stanford and WSU. I think there’s a sense from WSU that they can run on anyone.
Give us your prediction and what you hope to see in the game on Saturday night.
In my ideal world, WSU takes advantage of a weakened Stanford defense, throwing the ball for some big plays against inexperienced corners. Gabe Marks -- whom we didn’t even talk about, and is WSU’s most dangerous offensive weapon -- finally gets unhinged, and Stanford has to roll extra coverage his way. This softens up the front seven, and then WSU is able to gash the Cardinal on the ground. Meanwhile, WSU’s attacking defensive front is able to more or less contain McCaffrey -- even though he gets away for a few 10-plus-yard runs -- and Ryan Burns just can’t do enough through the air to make WSU pay for its aggression. The Cougars show that the start to the season is a fluke, winning 38-21.
It probably won’t go down that way. But that’s what I’m hoping for!
Everyone, give Jeff Nusser a follow at www.CougCenter.com and on Twitter @NussCoug