This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Through four games, we've seen a lot of variety from Washington State this season.
Here's a team that lost a shootout with Rutgers, couldn't score much on Nevada, and then pushed the No. 2 team in the nation to the brink last weekend. It's hard to know what to expect when the Utes line up against the Cougars on Saturday evening. Which team shows up?
To help you all get a better understanding of Wazzu, I asked beat writer Jacob Thorpe from The Spokesman-Review to answer a few burning questions. For more information on Washington State, you can follow Jacob on Twiter here, or read his stories by clicking here.
Onto the good stuff:
1) A lot of people seem to call Washington State's scheme "gimmicky," but there's a lot of pass-heavy spread offenses these days, due in part to Mike Leach's innovations. Do the Cougars differ much from other spread offenses in the league, and if that's the case, how so?
The closest Pac-12 offense you'll find to Leach's Air Raid is the Bear Raid Sonny Dykes runs at Cal, which makes sense because Dykes coached under Leach at Texas Tech. The two offenses are both high-tempo, although the Cougars still huddle, don't have heavy playbooks, preferring instead to master a small one, and make use of lots of vertical routes. Even those two offenses are starkly different, however, in that the Golden Bears actually run more often than they pass, while the Cougars only run when the defense dares them to by pulling players out of the tackle box. Cal also doesn't make use of the wide offensive line splits like WSU does and Dykes is more willing to adapt the offense to his personnel, whereas Leach recruits to his offense.
2) The defensive front did a tremendous job pressuring Marcus Mariota, sacking him seven times last weekend. Is that an aberration, or is pass rushing a true strength for the Cougar defense this year?
Well, I think seven sacks is always going to be an aberration - the best teams in the country typically average just over three per game at the end of the season. But heading into this season the strength of the WSU defense was supposed to be the defensive line, and that unit finally showed why against the Ducks, even with a starting defensive end not playing. The Cougars have some athletic hybrid Buck linebackers who will get after the quarterback, and Xavier Cooper will at the very least pressure Wilson.
3) Utah native Luke Falk walked on to the team and is now the No. 2 quarterback. What did he show the coaching staff to move up the depth chart so quickly? Can you think of an instance in spring or otherwise when he proved himself?
Well, the easy copout answer is that the two guys ahead of him on the depth chart transferred out. In reality, Falk was impressive enough on scout team last season to get a real shot to compete with four-star recruit Tyler Bruggman in the spring, once last year's backup Austin Apodaca left the program. Falk outplayed Bruggman and clearly had a better spring game. We don't know that the spring game prompted Bruggman to leave, but it's likely Falk would have been No. 2 even if he'd stayed.
4) The team is 1-3, but has fallen short in some close games. What do you see as the biggest factor in getting over that hump? Is there some hangover from their loss to Colorado State in the bowl last year?
I don't think the bowl game was a factor, I simply think that in the first two games either the offense or defense didn't show up. The Cougars showed in practice that they had the personnel to compete but for whatever reason they struggled to translate those successes to the game field. Against an easy opponent in Portland State the team was able to find success on offense and defense concurrently, and were able to build off that experience in the Oregon game.
5) Washington State has struggled in some of its games on defense. What do they view as the biggest key to shutting down Utah's offense, which has had a lot of success early in the year?
Travis Wilson will be the fourth consecutive running quarterback the Cougars have played, and their ability to make him one dimensional will dictate whether or not they can shut down Utah's offense. The Cougars were able to get to Mariota last Saturday, but whenever he the Ducks needed a big play he was able to give them one. They can't let Wilson extend drives by himself or it's tough to see a win for WSU.
6) Mike Leach brought some success last year to Pullman, including a big win over Utah. But with a tough start to this season, is there still a lot of faith in the team and his leadership capabilities? Do fans seem to think Leach is the guy who will keep this turnaround going?
My impression is that most fans realize how big of a rebuilding project the program was when Leach took over, and realize that a winning program will take time to build. I think fans are a little disappointed that last year's success hasn't carried over and that the Cougars maybe aren't as far ahead of schedule as they seemed when they made a bowl game in Leach's second year, but realize that recruiting has improved greatly and that the team is headed in the right direction.
Good stuff from Jacob, thanks for joining us.
There will be more preview material as we get closer to Utah's Pac-12 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Stay tuned.