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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Washington State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.

The least you should know about Washington State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 5-7 (3-6 Pac 10, T-8th)
2003-07: 30-29 (17-25 Pac 10)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 25 • 52 • 46 • 62 • 87
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
Brandon Gibson is the first Cougar in many moons to seriously consider jumping a year early to the NFL, though he was only the most explosive of four of them last year with more than 35 catches. He’s also the only one returning, certain to simultaneously command more attention from defenses while handling more possession receiver-type responsibilities now that Michael Bumpus, Jed Collins and Charles Dillon (159 catches in '07) are out of the picture. If Gibson averages 17.6 per catch again under those circumstances, he’s worth the pick.
You Know You’re a Cougar If...
I didn’t think West Coast folks got up early enough to watch Gameday, but it turns out no school represents on the pre-game circuit like Wazzou. Not that Gameday has ever actually been to Wazzou, but as they say: if you can’t bring the show to Pullman, take Pullman to the show. Thanks to the deranged loyalty first exhibited by alum Al Sorenson, the "Ol’ Crimson" flag has somehow flown at every Gameday location since 2003:

Look for the flag this year, then snub your nose at the "tradition," cuz once everybody knows about it, it’s, like, cliché or something.
* According to Rivals
What's Changed. Unlike deposed Nice Guy Bill Doba, Paul Wulff is an intense man, an intense ex-lineman intensely forged by intense bouts of intensity including playing days after an appendectomy and, uh, losing his mother at the age of 12, probably at the hands of his father, and later his first wife, to brain cancer. That really is intense.

Also intense: Wulff's passing schemes at Eastern Washington, where the Eagles were consistently one of the highest-flying teams in I-AA under his watch. At 33, he took over a middling, balanced EWU offense with nothing much going for it in 2000; in 2001, the Eagles led the nation in total and scoring offense, and have finished in the top ten in I-AA in both passing yards and passing efficiency four times in six years since. EWU made three playoff appearances in 26 years from 1978-2003, and three in four years from 2004-07. So goodbye, Big Sky, hello, Pac Ten.

Wulff comes out of Dennis Erickson's innovative one-back system in the late eighties (he was WSU's starting center from 1987-89) and with his tag-team coordinator Paul Sturdy fills the Cougars' market for a quarterback guru after three-and-a-half years of Alex Brink, he of the eternally conflicted legacy - Brink broke all the career records set by Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser, but never guided the team to bowl game; he was second in the conference in total offense in 2005 and 2006 and first last year, but threw double digit interceptions all three seasons and was always mediocre in terms of efficiency. The Cougars led the Pac Ten in passing yards and were second in total offense last year, but eighth in scoring. Right down to the end, Brink was an enigma: he ended his career with a near-perfect, 399-yard, five-touchdown rally to beat Washington in the Apple Cup, exactly one week after throwing six interceptions in a home beatdown at the hands of Oregon State. His tombstone should read: "Alex Brink: Hot or Cold, Win or Lose, He Got His Yards." Which is not to say they won't miss him.



Wulff: Actually Freddie Mercury, only smart for football instead of soaring harmony and dudes.
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What's the Same. The overall strength of the linebackers probably depends on whether you include sometimes-end Andy Mattingly, the most productive pass rusher on the defense, but either way, you can't say they haven't paid their dues. In more ways than one, actually - Cory Evans, Greg Trent and Kendrick Dunn are all seniors with a couple years starting experience and, along with Mattingly, some fairly prolific tackle totals, yet also presided over the worst scoring defense in the Pac Ten last year. This is what happens when you face five ranked teams, and four of them score 40-plus. In three years, the Cougars' best national finish in total defense is eighty-first, so unless incoming coordinator Jody Sears has something up his sleeve that didn't show up on the stat sheet at Eastern Washington, more experience in this case probably just means more pain.

Welcome to the Club. The pass-happy approach Wulff cultivated at Eastern Washington couldn't be more fitting here, at the place that pioneered and has most consistently defined the spread-friendly West Coast stereotype. The Cougars have finished in the top 25 in passing yards six years out of seven and produced an almost unbroken line of either record-breaking or NFL-bound passers: Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Bledsoe, Leaf, Gesser, Brink. Gary Rogers doesn't have enough time to join that group - he's a fifth-year senior, and some kind of gamer if he's been on the bench for four years hiding top-end talent - but he does have the Bledsoe/Leaf/Brink size (6-7, 235), and if tradition and/or his new coach's track record is any indication, Rogers will be fine. The last one-shot, fifth-year senior here, Matt Kegel, led the team to a ten-win season and Holiday Bowl win in 2003 with fairly yawn-worthy numbers for this system. Although, to be fair, he also benefitted from the last presentable Cougar defense, which Rogers almost certainly will not.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Rogers is hardly a lock for the starting job - he's getting a majority of the snaps in the first practices, but also getting some heat from a crowded field and adjusting to a no-huddle, spread-option-ish philosophy that would seem better suited to his smaller, presumably quicker challengers, allegedly headed by redshirt freshman Marshall Lobbestael. At least the prospect of a little option after decades of pocket-bound slinging has the Wazzu Scout site buzzing with nostalgia, even if "the spirit of Washington State's greatest option quarterbacks" was only manifest for a few plays of an early, helmets-only spring practice that had to be moved indoors due to lightning. That's okay - burn on, ghost of Ricky Turner. Burn bright.

The unveiling of some version of a "no huddle" has become a rite of Spring practice, yet almost no offense actually runs a real no huddle in the fashion of the Buffalo Bills or Indianapolis Colts. If they don't huddle, they're doing the annoying "check with me" routine at the line, which is neither up tempo nor spontaneous in the vein of the old K-Gun. An incorporation of the spread option, especially for a team that's been fairly anemic running the ball most of this decade, is the more fundamental shift.

Washington State on You Tube. I've posted this before, but it's one of the real gems of YouTube-ery, in my opinon - footage of the then-Washington State Agriculture College Warriors hamming it up (well, Coach Dietz, at least) at the 1916 Rose Bowl, the first since the game discontinued after a blowout in 1902:

Ninety-two years on, WSU is still waiting on its second Rose Bowl win.

See Also: Washington State girls react to 2 Girls, 1 Cup in the Northside Dining Center. ... The world's longest beer bong. ... There is no excuse for a school outside of the SEC to pioneer the moving swimming pool. ... And the band played on.

Best-Case. Never count out the as-yet-unknonw influence of a young, up-and-coming coach, but unless Wulff is really some kind of brilliant mind, recent history sets some pretty firm limits on the Cougars' success in-conference, which tops out around four wins. Assuming it can hit that mark - with par-for-the-course efforts against Stanford, Arizona and Washington and an upset against UCLA, Oregon State or Cal, it's attainable - bowl eligibility will hinge on winning three out of four games outside of the league. Baylor and Portland State are gimmes; bookends Oklahoma State and Hawaii, in Honolulu, might well be the determining factors in breaking the five-year postseason drought. Ideally, WSU can win both; the most exciting vision, actually, is for the Cougars to come out gunning offensively against Oklahoma State, barrell through the Cowboys and Cal en route to a 4-0 start, and still be sitting at .500 after a brutal October (consecutive weeks against Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC aren't promising, even thinking optimistically). The way the schedule plays, hitting win number seven in the islands after Thanksgiving would be a realistic and substantial step forward.


Mattingly: Irrelevantly good.
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Worst-Case. Stumble in the opener, and the Cougars could be sitting at 2-6 and virtually out of bowl contention entering November, where a demoralized team could easily continue a dark descent. Assuming it won't be bad enough to drop nine straight after I-AA cupcake Portland State, another generous defensive effort and failure to click in the new offense could knock the bar as low as 3-10.

Non-Binding Forecast. The more things change... The Cougars were predictable under Doba, if nothing else: winners when expected, losers when expected - aside from upsetting Oregon in 2006 and immediately giving it back in a surprising loss to Arizona, Wazzu has been almost right down the line as a favorite and underdog over the last four years. With about four "swing" games, that gives State a window of somewhere between three and six wins, not enough in a 13-game schedule to break the bowl slide, and certainly not enough to break even in the conference, where it's probably the least talented team overall (this doesn't say much for Doba's recruiting, either). This is not a dire rebuilding job, but this fall will probably feel like one: much as there is potential for excitement out of the offense, the best thing that can happen to the Cougars is a solid upset (over Cal, UCLA or Arizona State, maybe), general improvement from the beginning of the year to the end, a strong closing stretch against Washington and Hawaii and a sense of momentum entering 2009. I wouldn't predict better than 6-7.