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1) The quarterback position: if all things were equal, who would you like to see starting and why? Who do you think will start?
No brainer: Jeff Tuel. Connor Halliday has put up eye-popping numbers at times, but on the whole, Tuel's been the better quarterback this year. He started out the season tentative and indecisive, and when he got hurt against Eastern, Halliday seized the opportunity, keeping the job even after Tuel returned to health. But it's boom or bust with Halliday, and his interceptions became an enormous problem to the point that Leach went back to Tuel. Since then, he's been pretty good, even leading the team to a near upset of Stanford on the road. But then Tuel went out and got hurt again against UCLA, allowing Halliday to come in and put up huge numbers with the team hopelessly behind. Tuel returned to start against ASU, but after a rough first quarter (that wasn't helped by a bunch of drops), Mike Leach benched Tuel for Halliday. Halliday was terrible, too.
The bottom line is that neither guy has set the world on fire. But Tuel has been the more accurate of the two and less mistake prone. As if that weren't enough, the Apple Cup is Tuel's senior day, and after the way he's been pummeled for four years behind what has to be one of the worst performing offensive lines in the history of major college football, he deserves to go out on his terms. Halliday apparently sustained a concussion at some point against ASU, so it looks like this is the direction it will go -- as it should.
2) The injury to Travis Long is a big blow, as he was the clear rock of the WSU defense. What other players are there to keep an eye on on that side of the ball?
His replacement Logan Mayes, is a good place to start. He doesn't have the girth of Long, but he's a heck of a pass rusher and could present some problems in obvious passing situations. The question is whether he'll be a liability against the run. A guy who won't get the casual fan's attention but who will be oh-so-important to slowing down Bishop Sankey is nose tackle Ioane Gauta. The juco transfer has been a rock in the middle for most of the year, although he has seemed to wear out just a little bit as the year has gone on. If he can hold up to the double teams and keep UW from getting a good push, it makes the linebackers' jobs easier.
A linebacker to watch is Cyrus Coen, a former walk-on who seems to have a knack for making big plays. He'll likely end up matched up with Austin Seferian-Jenkins a bunch, which frankly is an apparent mismatch. He'll have to have the game of his life. And the player in the secondary whose name you'll hear called most often is safety Deone Bucannon. That's both a blessing and a curse, because it means UW is moving the ball.
3) What is an area, or a couple areas, where you'd give the Cougars a matchup advantage? What matchups does Washington State need to win to succeed?
Honestly, I don't see an obvious matchup advantage anywhere - I suppose that happens when one team is 7-4 and the other is 2-9. But if there's one area where WSU might be able to do some damage, it's in its pass rush - the Cougs actually are 11th nationally in sacks, and it isn't a fluke. They've figured out ways to get pressure this year with some nifty blitz packages. Since I know Washington has had protection issues this year, perhaps this is an area the Cougs can excel.
I also think the Gauta/Toni Pole (his backup who rotates in) matchup with the interior of Washington's line on running plays will be critical. Both guys are capable of being incredibly disruptive.
4) The Huskies have been prone to slow starts on the road of late, at least offensively. However, the strength of the defense is the secondary, where you want it against an Air Raid attack. If the Huskies come out flat, is the WSU passing game good enough to put Washington in a hole? What kind of game (shootout, defensive grind, turnover fest) would play most into the Cougars hands?
It can be! But it also can be downright awful. I honestly have no idea what to expect out of the gate for the Cougs, but I know that a quick start offensively would go a long way toward keeping the team and fans away from "here we go again." As for style, I think a defensive grind is best because the offense has proven incapable of piling up points against anyone other than a mentally-checked-out UCLA. The defense likely will have to hold the Huskies under 30 points for the Cougs to have a legitimate chance in this game.
5) Clearly the first season under Mike Leach has been a bit of a disappointment. How long of a rebuild is the Cougar faithful looking at, what are realistic expectations over the coming years, and what are the keys to address in this coming offseason?
Most people are still on board with the idea that Leach is indeed the solution long term, even as this year hasn't gone at all as expected. As for how long it will take ... who knows. I don't really know what to think. I think there's a chance to take a big step forward next year; the defense loses just two starters (Long and the team's best corner, Daniel Simmons), and the offense returns a ton of pieces, as well. It likely will come down to how much the offensive line improves and how much Leach can get out of whichever quarterback wins the job (likely Halliday). It's rumored that Leach has a ton of offers out to juco linemen, and they'll need that to work out as well as some of the guys who redshirted this year come into next season ready to play. But even if that happens, it still feels like a bowl game is a longshot next year.