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Behind Enemy Lines: Washington State Cougars football

What should we expect in Pullman?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, the Buffs catch an opponent after a very busy week. One week after CU played OSU during the week in which they fired their head coach, the Buffs travel to Pullman and play the Cougars off of a big upset and after their athletic director leave to Nebraska (puuuuuuuke). Jeff Nusser and CougCenter have been on top of the news all week, and he took time out of his day to talk about Falk’s regression, the defense’s progression, and how college kids suck sometimes. Check out our answers to their questions over at CougCenter.

1. What happened against Cal?

This will shock you and your readers to find out, but sometimes college kids just play like crap. I have a hard time chalking it up to much more than that, given the absurd number of out-of-character things the offense did and the ridiculous number of bounces that went Cal’s way. Luke Falk threw five interceptions after having thrown just two all season, and he also had a fumble returned for a TD. And that wasn’t even all the turnovers! There also was a kickoff return TD called back on an unnecessary hold, and a TD throw called back on a questionable offensive pass interference. Really, everything that could possibly have gone wrong, went wrong.

In fact, my favorite stat from the game really illustrates how dumb the whole thing was: Cal’s margin of victory (34 points) was larger than its total offense margin (28 yards). It was embarrassing for sure, but on a weekend when three other top 10 teams lost to unranked teams, it served as a good reminder that college kids will sometimes do their college kid thing. Luke Falk won’t ever be that bad again, and every bounce won’t go the opponent’s way again, so consequently I don’t think there was much to be learned from the outcome.

Well, maybe one little thing: The defense — an undersized group built on speed — got bossed around a bit in the second half, which was the first time that had happened. We’ll see if that was just a function of things rolling out of control, or if that’s something a power running team like Colorado can take advantage of. (You know, like they did in the second half last year.)

2. Luke Falk is still putting up ludicrous numbers, but my untrained eye says that he is missing Gabe Marks and River Cracraft this year? How would you assess his play?

I can see why a casual observer would think that, but to us, it seems to run deeper. Yeah, those guys are gone, but there’s still plenty of talent at receiver — in particular, his inside receivers (Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin) are more explosive than they’ve ever been under Mike Leach at WSU, and outside receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack is a physical beast who can win one-on-one matchups. These are guys he should trust.

Whatever is going on seems to largely be between the ears, to be honest. He’s always been a guy who holds the ball longer than the average quarterback, which is part of why he throws so few interceptions, but this year it seems some teams have really been able to slow down his reads with looks and coverages that are confusing him. He’s just been more inconsistent — and more conservative — than you’d expect for a guy in his third full year as a starter in the system.

We expect more. Maybe that’s because we’re a little spoiled, but we really do think he’s capable of more. And Leach clearly does, too — he actually benched Falk midway through the game against Boise, and it was the backup Tyler Hilinski who led WSU to the win.

(Oh, and he’s on pace to throw for about 250 yards fewer than the last couple of seasons.)

3. What has been the key to a more successful defense this year? How is WSU causing so many more turnovers or negative plays?

This defense is light and fast and they have one goal: Create havoc for the offense. They play an aggressive, penetrating one-gap scheme up front, led by midseason AP All-American Hercules Mata’afa. Besides having the best name in the Pac-12, he’s also the most disruptive player in the conference. He’s terribly difficult for one lineman to block, and that opens up all sorts of opportunities for others. They try to get to running backs before then can get rolling, and they harass the quarterback into poor decisions.

The one achilles heel at the moment, though, is some pretty extreme injuries at inside linebacker — WSU has lost three seniors there, leaving a trio of redshirt freshmen to fill the void. It didn’t catch up to them until Cal, though, and it would help a lot of Isaac Dotson could return next to Jahad Woods; he has been a revelation taking over for Peyton Pelluer, who’s out for the season. We don’t know when Dotson is maybe coming back, though, because Leach doesn’t talk about injuries.

4. Are you worried about Mike Leach leaving WSU anytime soon?

Well, we’re definitely a little more worried now than we were a week ago, now that our athletics director has left for Nebraska. Bill Moos is the guy who lured Leach away from Key West and made sure Leach knew just how important and valued he was to WSU. Given what happened at Texas Tech, there’s concern that whoever replaces Moos won’t make Leach comfortable enough and he’ll find somewhere else to go. I’d be real surprised, though, if he leaves at the end of this season. I know people look at WSU as a stepping stone job, but Leach is a quirky dude who seems pretty happy and really doesn’t care if anyone else thinks he should be interested in another job. He’s making plenty of money, the fans appreciate him, and he’s built a program that’s not going to drop way off next season.

5. Who are the players to watch on offense? Defense?

On offense, I’ll give you Jamal Morrow. You might remember him as the guy streaking down the middle out of the backfield for a receiving TD over the top of your linebacker in Boulder last year. He’s WSU’s most dangerous running back — a very tough runner who is an excellent pass catcher. On defense, I’ll give you Jalen Thompson. The safety is a ball hawk, and Montez ought to be very careful throwing deep.

6. What is your prediction for the game?

I think returning home to Pullman does these guys a lot of good, but there’s one problem: The weather is supposed to be terrible. Like, sideways rain terrible. The Air Raid has struggled in such conditions for what are probably obvious reasons, so while I think WSU is the better team and should be ready to pay off a whole lot of revenge here — for last week’s game against Cal, and for last year’s game in Boulder — I’ll bet it’s closer than we like. I’m thinking something like 24-21, WSU.