It’s time for our weekly “Five Questions, Five Answers,” blog post, examining that week’s UW opponent with a beat writer who follows the other team.
Our guest this week is Christian Caple, who covers the Cougars and head coach Mike Leach (above in a Dean Rutz photo) for The Spokesman-Review. You can find his work regularly here and on Twitter at @ChristianCaple.
So here we go with my questions and his answers:
Q1: It’s often said WSU can save even the worst of seasons with a win in the Apple Cup. Do you think this is true for this team?
A1: It might be true for the seniors, some of whom have never beaten the Huskies (the fifth-year guys were obviously here for the win in 2008). But I think the general attitude within the athletic department these days is to focus a little more on the bigger picture. Bill Moos is an old-school Cougar, the kind of guy who knows how much it means to beat Washington.
Still, I think he’d prefer the emphasis to be on every game WSU plays, and not just one at the end of the season. And I don’t think Mike Leach is a guy who’s going to look any fonder on a 3-9 season just because it ended with a win over his team’s rival. That’s not to say this staff doesn’t embrace the thing. They do. But I don’t know that winning the Apple Cup is any more important to them than simply winning the football game they’re playing on Friday.
Q2: Any way to tell how much of a distraction all the controversy surrounding Mike Leach has been to the players?
A2: I think in an honest moment, some of them might tell you it’s a little distracting. I mean, the mere fact that there were Pac-12 employees on campus last week interviewing players is probably evidence enough of that. Everyone knows what’s going on. A lot of those guys are friends with Marquess Wilson. So I’m sure it’s not something they can just totally push out of their heads. But I also think that anyone who’s played any kind of sport knows that once you’re between the lines and the game starts, it’s hard to think about much else. And it’d be hard to believe that a WSU team could be all that distracted once the Apple Cup starts.
Q3: A lot of people thought this team had legit bowl hopes before the season began. In retrospect, was that too optimistic? If so, why?
A3: I was one of them, so I’m tempted to say it wasn’t too optimistic. But yeah, in retrospect, I think maybe people were a little too willing to overlook some of their deficiencies because of how successful Mike Leach had been at Texas Tech. But there was reason to think his offense would work from the start — WSU was ninth in the country in passing offense last season and that was without Jeff Tuel for basically the entire year, plus the little we saw of Connor Halliday last season seemed to indicate that good things were ahead. But the installation of the new system obviously didn’t go as smoothly as anyone would have liked, and the mental toll of losing 40 games in four seasons was ultimately too much for Leach to shake out of them. I would say that losing all those linebackers didn’t really help, either, but that group has actually been relatively solid this season. That’s what’s kind of odd — everyone figured WSU’s offense would be this sure thing while the defense would struggle to stop anybody, but the defense actually wound up being a little more reliable (though still pretty inconsistent).
Q4: Any way to tell what kind of attendance there will be for the game? And what’s been the general reaction to the change of the date?
A4: Well, WSU said 850 tickets remained as of Monday, but I’m not sure if that includes the 1,600 or so that were reportedly returned by UW. And then there’s the question of how many students will end their Thanksgiving break a couple days early to come back into town for the game, as well as how many ticket-holders won’t bother with the drive that close to a holiday. Even if you’re only coming from Seattle, that’s still a long drive to make on Friday morning, assuming you want to spend Thanksgiving with your family. So you can imagine the reaction hasn’t been great. Nobody likes it, but at WSU it’s especially appropriate to remind folks why this is all happening — if you want stadium renovations, if you want to be able to pay a top-tier coach, these wacky TV schedules are going to be part of the deal. I think that’s something people understand, if begrudgingly.
Q5: Finally, UW is as much as a 13.5-point favorite as this is written, and will likely be expected by most to win the game. What are a couple of things that the Cougars could do to make this a game?
A5: They need to force the Huskies into one of their patented slow starts and take advantage of it — score early, build some offensive rhythm and get the crowd going. WSU has been a lot better at pressuring the quarterback this season than in years past — it’s tied for 11th in the nation with 32 sacks — which is obviously something the Huskies offense has struggled with a little bit. And the Cougars have had a couple really, really good games against top-flight running backs — Stepfan Taylor and Johnathan Franklin were pretty much non-factors in WSU’s games against them — but they’ve also gotten torched at times, too, so containing Bishop Sankey is both a possibility and a concern. It’s also probably more imperative than usual to keep Jeff Tuel from getting hit. WSU has allowed more sacks (53) than any team in the country, and Tuel has obviously had a couple health issues this season. But it looks as if Halliday won’t play this week — as of this writing, he hasn’t practiced — meaning WSU’s backup would be David Gilbertson (Keith’s son), who hasn’t taken a snap this season. If the Cougars can run the ball a little bit — they’re also last in the country in rushing yards — that could help offset UW’s pass rush.