For our weekly scouting the opponent feature, we turn to a familiar name — former UW Daily sportswriter Christian Caple, who now covers the Cougars for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (find his blog here).
As with the other writers kind enough to participate this year, I supplied Caple the questions and he gave the answers. So here goes:
1, The stats of WSU QB Jeff Tuel (pictured in an AP photo) the last few games make it seems like he’s becoming a Jake Locker-clone. Why is he suddenly running for so many yards and how has that helped the offense?
A: You know, it’s kind of interesting that Tuel downplayed that so much this week, saying that most of those yards were due to his own decisions to scramble on broken pass plays. There’s some validity to that — most of his rushing yardage against OSU resulted from scrambling — but obviously, we can see that they’re calling more zone-read type of plays designed for him to be able to make the decision to keep it or give it to the tailback (similar to what the Huskies do with Locker and Chris Polk). Paul Wulff was originally hesitant to really let him loose, since the Cougars’ offense would be more or less non-functional if Tuel were to get hurt.
But Wulff admitted after WSU’s loss to Cal — the first time we really saw designed runs called consistently for Tuel — that the running game had become so stagnant, it didn’t make sense anymore to limit someone like Tuel who could be such a potential threat. Obviously, that notion — desperate as it may have been — bore fruit against Oregon State. So that answer is two-fold — one, he’s running for more yards because they’re calling more runs for him (and likely have told him it’s OK to be a little more liberal with his scrambling). And two, they’re doing that because nothing else in the running game has worked.
2, With what seems like a good QB in Tuel and two good receivers in Jared Karstetter and Marquess Wilson, it seems like WSU has a decent passing attack. But its running game has been a real struggle all year, right? What’s been the problem with that?
A: It’s a couple different things. For one, it hasn’t helped that of the six tailbacks they entered the year with, not a single one of them has gone the entire season without missing time. I know the coaching staff was really excited about true freshman Ricky Galvin, the only guy in that pack who really seemed to have that big-time burst and quickness, but he broke his arm on the first carry of his career and that was that. Former one-time UW commit James Montgomery (it’s a miracle he’s even playing this year to begin with, given the compartment syndrome he dealt with last year), Chantz Staden, Marcus Richmond and Carl Winston have all been banged up at one time or another, and they even moved Arthur Burns from linebacker to tailback just to make sure they had enough guys to make it through a game. Logwone Mitz has been healthy and shown flashes of talent at times, but also makes some frustrating mistakes in the passing game in terms of missed blocks and things like that. So health has again been a concern.
The other issue is the offensive line, one of the worst in the country the past two years. They’ve definitely improved — Tuel’s health is a testament to that — but just aren’t to the point yet where they can win battles in the trenches against teams like Oregon, Stanford, Arizona, California, etc. (though obviously, they did well enough against OSU). Some new starters there (including true freshman John Fullington, who’s going to be a heck of a player some day but has made his share of rookie mistakes this year) along with injuries (a concussion to Micah Hannam, a fractured forearm for David Gonzalez, and nicks and bruises here and there to guys up and down the depth) haven’t done much for continuity, either, which is kind of the same problem the running backs have had. Plus, Galvin was really the only guy who had the potential to make big plays on his own — Montgomery and Staden could be good backs in the right system, but they’re just not big-play guys.
3, WSU ranks near the bottom in every defensive stat. What have been the struggles, and what went right against Oregon State?
A: Like most of the problems with this team, it starts with youth. Look at who their most productive players have been this year. Safety Deone Bucannon is the team’s leading tackler, and he’s a true freshman. They start two freshmen (C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi) at linebacker. Defensive backs Nolan Washington, Damante Horton (he’s hurt, too) are both true freshmen. In their opener against Oklahoma State, I think they had eight freshmen playing at the same time on defense for a couple plays. So that’s obviously an issue, both in the running game and the passing game.
The other is that they don’t tackle, the most appalling example being the 32 tackles they missed in a 50-16 loss to USC. But again, much of that comes with experience — a lot of these guys simply didn’t/don’t know how to bring down a physical, Pac-10 running back yet. And it’s asking a lot of your safeties and corners to make most of the tackles, which has been a product of the defensive line failing to get off blocks or get any pressure on the quarterback. Jacquizz Rodgers may disagree with that.
The Cougars essentially did something against Oregon State that they hadn’t done all year — dominated the point of attack at the line of scrimmage and got to the quarterback (they sacked Ryan Katz five times, all by the defensive line, two by first-time starter Casey Hamlett). Held Rodgers under 100 yards in the process, too. And they did an OK job against Cal and Shane Vereen the week before. So it may just be a matter of getting those younger guys enough reps to be able to execute properly.
4, It seemed like WSU would have a lot of momentum coming into the Apple Cup but the two-week bye is obviously a little strange. Any way to gague what the mood of the team is and how they bye might impact anything?
A: You could probably give the Cougars a month off and if their next game was against Washington, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference as far as intensity and all that. They’re amped. The bye weeks may have tempered the specific energy from the OSU win, but I think when you combine that with the fact that this is Apple Cup week, the feeling is the same as it would have been without the time off. And they really, really needed those two weeks. I doubt that Wulff/Bill Moos (if that’s the combo still in charge) would approve a schedule that has them playing 11 consecutive games ever again. The payoff from switching things around may have been worth it (and it was forced on them a little bit when WSU let Cal switch a game that had been scheduled for Nov. 20), but they had a lot of minor-ish injuries this year that could have been aided greatly by some time off.
And for those who doubt that a week can make that kind of difference, it’s worth remembering that Jake Locker may very well have sat out the week after the Oregon game had the Huskies been playing. Anyone on the WSU side will tell you they wish they could have broken those two byes up throughout the season, but I know how glad they are to have gotten them, and really don’t think it’s going to be an issue as far as momentum and all that. I also don’t think it’s as big of a deal in terms of preparation as some people might think. Cougars didn’t practice a ton during those off-weeks, went home for Thanksgiving, etc. It’s not like they were holding two-a-days the entire time, watching Jake Locker’s highlight film on repeat or anything. And at this point in the season, everyone more or less knows what everyone else is about. As far as momentum, I think it’s a non-issue, too.
5, Finally, there’s all kinds of conjecture about the future of Paul Wulff. What is the sense you get over there of how the fan base feels about him and whether there is any chance he is back next year?
A: This question is a lot harder to answer than it was after the Montana State game, when even the staunchest of Wulff supporters were rethinking things. The win over Oregon State was absolutely enormous in terms of kind of providing some evidence that yes, the talent is getting there, yes, the system is working, etc. You could already see that just in their competitiveness, but I think it was really important to Wulff’s cause that they actually win one. That said, I don’t think the fan base was as split as it was earlier this year, and I really do think that a lot of people would be pretty surprised if they cleaned house.
I’d include myself in that group — not that I have an opinion either way in terms of what WSU should do with him, just that I think (and others disagree, so this is by no means a blanket statement) most of the evidence/mood around here seems to be pointing toward Wulff returning. On the flip side of that, Moos has been pretty tight-lipped about all of this, saying they’ll evaluate it at the end of the season, etc. Not exactly the most ringing endorsement, but not a kiss of death or anything like that, either. Though the Mike Bellotti rumors do seem to get louder by the day.
One way to quiet those is obviously to win the Apple Cup, which, in the context of the entire season, always seems to mean more here in terms of the body of work than it does in Seattle (and as far as that being a statement about the rivalry as a whole, take it as you will). But I don’t think a loss Saturday necessarily does Wulff in, either. I guess the simple answer is that most here seem to think progress has been obvious this season. We just obviously don’t know yet if it’s the amount Moos, et al were looking for.
December 2, 2010 at 11:57 AM
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