Jeff Nusser of the fantastic Coug Center was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Ralphie Report about the Saturday showdown between the Buffs and the Cougars. Check out our answers to his questions over at Coug Center.
Ralphie Report: Luke Falk is as unreal as always, but it seems like the difference between this Cougar team and previous iterations is the balance. How does Mike Leach strike the balance on offense, and does Leach use the run to set up the pass or the opposite?
Well, it's both ... and neither.
Mike Leach's definition of balance is a lot different than everyone else's -- you can read more about that here -- but the tl;dr version is that he's never all that worried about his run/pass ratios in and of themselves. The Air Raid is specifically designed to be able to attack any part of the field at any time, and for the first three years of Leach's tenure at WSU, the Cougs obviously could pass the ball, but the ability to attack weak defensive fronts via the run was a noticeable blemish that allowed defenses more freedom to clog up passing lanes.
The team took a step forward in that regard last year, but this year the team has finally evolved into a true Air Raid attack that can punish whatever weakness you present to the Cougs with your defensive schemes. Sometimes that means running the ball 30 times if a team is shading toward stopping the pass; sometimes that means throwing it 50 times if a team is determined to plug up the run. It's really a fluid, game-to-game -- and play-to-play -- situation.
Ralphie Report: What has Alex Grinch done for this defense and what should CU fans expect to see in terms of defensive style? What is the best way to beat this defense?
Grinch is a smart dude who knows how to use his personnel effective. The first thing WSU is going to do is sell out to stop the run. That starts with a stout defensive line that has specialized in penetration under defensive line coach Joe Salave'a, but it's enhanced by the activity of nickelback Shalom Luani. An all-Pac-12 honorable mention at safety last season as a junior college transfer, Luani moved into his new role when the starter there went down with an injury. He's been nothing short of incredible in a role that's more akin to the NFL's "Money Backer" position than the traditional nickel corner; when he recognizes run, he's like a downhill runaway train toward the ball carrier, and he's adequate enough in coverage. You really have to account for him on every play.
That said, the defense has been a little susceptible to big plays -- usually one a game -- because of this aggression. But it's a trade-off they're willing to make to keep people behind the chains.
And there's the rub for an offense to beat them: You've got to keep up with the chains, and you're almost certainly going to have to complete passes at a high percentage to do it. Then, if you can protect your quarterback and you've got someone outside with some wheels, you can get behind them from time to time. But if you're getting stuffed on the run and the pass rush is getting home? No chance.
Oh, and one other thing: These guys are ball hawks.
Ralphie Report: The loss of River Cracraft is pretty big for the Cougars, but somehow I get the feeling that WSU has depth at receiver. Who steps up in his absence?
Probably Kyle Sweet and John Thompson. Neither is as dynamic as Cracraft, and he will certainly be missed -- he and Gabe Marks form about as reliable a receiving duo as you'll find in the entire country -- but each should do a serviceable job in an offense that will find the open man ... wherever he is.
Ralphie Report: Any chance the Buffs can catch WSU looking ahead to the Apple Cup? (please say yes)
Nope. This team has thrived on DISRESPEKT, and being ranked No. 22 while riding an eight-game win streak is certain to fuel their fire with the opportunity to take down the No. 10 team. Plus, if UW somehow blows it against Arizona State, WSU would clinch the Pac-12 North with a win.
Ralphie Report: Who's the one player to watch on offense? What about on defense?
So many guys to watch on offense. I'll give you two: receiver Gabe Marks and running back James Williams. Marks is the team's top receiver, and he's liable to make just about any team silly enough to try and cover him with just a single corner look foolish. His get-off at the line is second to none, his hands are incredible, and it's possible he's actually the toughest player on the field.
Williams is the team's most explosive running back. He's such a natural runner, blending speed with tremendous acceleration, balance and strength. He's the one guy on the team who makes you sit up and go WHOA at least once a game, and sometimes it's only because he turned a 4-yard loss into a 2-yard gain.
On defense, it's Luani, who likely will be the linchpin in terms of trying to disrupt Colorado's RPOs. But since I already talked with him, let's go with Hercules Mata'afa. Not only will he have the best name of anyone out there on Saturday, he's also a gifted pass rusher. His consistency has been a little more hit and miss than we'd like this year, but he's still capable of taking over a game.
Ralphie Report: What is your prediction for the game?
I think it's going to be awfully close. I don't think Colorado can hold WSU under 30 (unless there's a driving rain storm like we had against UCLA), and I'm not sure the Buffaloes have four touchdowns in them against the Cougar defense. So let's go 31-24, WSU.
Ralphie Report: Can we take a second to appreciate that there is a top-25 matchup between the Buffaloes and the Cougars in late November?
Yes, we most certainly can. Our staff was talking about this the other day -- how incredible is it that these two programs have pulled themselves up out of the muck? They were the undisputed worst programs in the conference just four or five years ago, and to be here right now is pretty glorious. We've also benefited from some down years from the traditional power schools, but nobody's going to remember that in a few years. This is very, very cool.