November 3, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Washington State Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel (10) is on the turf after being sacked by Utah Utes defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi (91) during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. - Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE
Each week, we take a look at the various fronts of Washington's upcoming opponent. Today, we look at the offense of the Washington State Cougars.
Note: Due to the truncated week leading up to this week's game on the day following Thanksgiving, I'm basing this week's previews off of the depth chart that the Cougs listed against Arizona State.
Suffice to say that Wazzu's first year in the Mike Leach Era has not gone as swimmingly as Cougar fans originally hoped. From the departure of star receiver Marquess Wilson, to the odd spectacle of the unconventional coach marching his offensive and defensive lines before the media following their "heartless" performance against Utah, it seems plain that the Cougars are far, far away from attaining any semblance of success, and it seems reasonable to guess that at this rate, it might take Leach more time to find that success than he'll be afforded by the WSU faithful. The considerable buzz and excitement that surrounded his hiring just 11 months ago now seems a distant memory (remember all the talk of the Cougs making it to a bowl game in the preseason?), and there's little question that this season amounts to nothing short of a complete and total failure in the eyes of Cougar Nation (I'm looking directly at you, Go2Guy). Though he's firmly secure in his job for the next two to three years, the pressure to begin winning will soon mount on Leach, and it's a good bet that he'll do his damnedest to start that trend this week against the hated Washington Huskies.
Quarterback: Washington State is a one-trick pony, and while it appears on first glance that they perform that trick exceptionally well -- the Cougs have the sixth-most passing yards in the country, having thrown for 3,615 yards this season -- it becomes plain that the Cougar emperor has no clothes when you realize that their 6.3 passing yards per attempt ranks 104th among FBS teams. This is a unit that slings the rock early and often but at considerable expense, as the team has a thoroughly underwhelming ratio of 23 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. Fifth-year senior and all-around likable guy Jeff Tuel has played hurt for basically his entire career, and after entering the 2012 season as the undisputed starter, he has split time with the tough-as-nails Connor Halliday (he of lacerated liver fame) this year due to a combination of injury and poor play. Neither signal caller has proven to be the breakout player that Cougar fans desperately hoped for this year, and it's unlikely that they'll find much success against a Washington pass defense that ranks ninth in the nation (after the Defensive Debacle of 2011 that Nick Holt paid for with his pound of flesh, I'm still trying to wrap my head around how that's a factual statement).
Running Back: As you might expect from a Leach-run offense, playing tailback is a depressing proposition for any Cougar ball carrier who came into college with dreams of rushing 20 to 30 times per game (Washington fans likely aren't the only ones who are glad that Bishop Sankey flipped his commitment in 2011; you have to think that Bishop is pretty thankful for making that decision, as well). Just as the offense has the most passing attempts in the country, it has the lowest number of rushes, having carried the ball just 228 times in 11 games (compare that to Washington's 395 rushes in the same number of contests). The Cougs' featured backs are true freshman Teondray Caldwell, who has amassed 262 yards and zero touchdowns on 53 carries, and fourth-year senior Carl Winston, who has racked up 253 yards and two scores on 73 carries. None of the Cougars' rushers are particularly threatening in the passing game, either, with sophomore Marcus Mason being the only running back to score a receiving touchdown on the year.
Offensive Line: I can't say it any better than their own head coach did: This unit resembles a pack of "empty corpses" who would fit right in at "a zombie convention." Certainly, a shuffling herd of the walking dead couldn't be any worse at protecting their quarterback, as WSU's 53 sacks allowed ranks last among FBS teams. Even worse, it's not even really close, as their closest competitor for the ignominious honor, Colorado, has allowed their quarterback to go down a comparatively paltry 47 times. Guys, let me try to put this gently: When you find yourself contemplating how to elevate your team's play to the level of the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes, it's time to scratch whatever plans you've drawn up and start back at square one.
Wide Receivers: The Cougs have more passing attempts than any other team in the nation, but find themselves missing the biggest component of their Air Raid offense in the homestretch of the season. Marquess Wilson, who undoubtedly represented Washington State's greatest weapon on either side of the ball, chose to leave the team two weeks ago, throwing allegations of "physical, emotional and verbal abuse" on the part of the coaching staff in his wake. Wilson was particularly effective in last year's 21-38 Apple Cup loss, accounting for 108 yards and two touchdowns, and even after missing the Cougars' last two games, he still ranks as their most prolific receiver this year. As a result, Wazzu has been forced to elevate true freshmen Gabe Marks (47 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns) and Brett Bartolone (49 receptions for 407 yards and four scores) into the spotlight, whose productivity will be severely challenged by Washington defenders like Desmond Trufant, Marcus Peters and Shaq Thompson. Washington State's reliance on the pass precludes me from touching on every player on the squad who has a decent number of catches and/or yards this year, but two other names that you'll want to be aware of are redshirt freshman Dominique Williams and redshirt sophomore Kristoff Williams (no relation), who have eight touchdowns on just 55 receptions between them.