One of the great benefits of being part of the SB Network is the ability to check in with different team blogs to learn more about an upcoming opponent. One of the very best blogs on the network is CougCenter, and they were kind enough to answer some questions about Washington State's season and the Apple Cup:
UWDP: The biggest storyline heading into this game is likely the status of Luke Falk and whether or not he can play. Assuming he can't, what's your scouting report on Peyton Bender? If he starts, how much (if any) does that change your confidence level of WSU winning the game?
CC: Well, first things first: It's irrational to think that WSU's chances to win the game don't go down when the best player on either team doesn't play. Doesn't mean they can't win, just means the expectation for what we're going to get is a lot more up in the air.
The biggest thing people who have watched Falk this year will notice is that Bender clearly has more "arm talent" than Falk, whose arm is strong enough, but not the stuff of legends. Bender can really spin it, and there's really not a throw he can't make. Of course, he knows that, and in the limited action he's seen this season, he's tried to wedge the ball into some tight spots. Which is probably the thing that worries us the most about having him at the helm on Friday.
One of Falk's greatest attributes is his ability to take care of the ball; he finds the open receivers, and if he doesn't see what he wants to see, he's got no problem eating it for a sack. (Of course, this is part of the reason he's likely on the sideline this weekend.) Bender's already shown he's not that guy. Will he be able to stay away from killer interceptions?
UWDP: After a rough start to the season, the Cougars rebounded and have already put together their best season since 2003. From this vantage point there are multiple games that could be looked at as key games in the progression of this team - beating Rutgers on the road get in the win column and avoid letting the Portland State loss tank the season; beating Oregon to grab the attention of the conference (and the nation); and the loss (that was very nearly a win) vs. Stanford to prove WSU can play toe-to-toe with the best in the conference. Which game was the most important of those three in your view?
CC: If forced to choose from those three, I'd go with Oregon. The loss to Cal the week before had the potential to tank the season, and while it wasn't the first time the Cougs had been resilient -- that would be Rutgers -- when you come from behind on the road to knock off a team that's been one of the best in the country for years, that's special. WSU's fearlessness has become a defining characteristic, and the win over Oregon was the first time we truly saw that.
UWDP: A big reason for the turnaround for WSU this year is the improvement on defense under new DC Alex Grinch. Is this improvement a result of new schemes and philosophies, a new attitude installed by Grinch or expected improvement among the returning players? Or is it some combination of the above?
CC: I'd say it's something like 10% new schemes, 45% attitude and 45% improvement. Strategically, Grinch has created a scheme where the players are able to play fast, loose and downhill -- so often over the past few years, players were tight and flat footed. But more than anything, these guys just have a belief in what they're doing; they play with an attitude, efforting to do something disruptive on every play, and that confidence allows the scheme to do its job.
That said, it's obvious the talent is deeper and more mature. The defensive line has developed into a force, and the addition of a guy like Shalom Luani in the back end elevated the unit's ability level. And they're still pretty young overall and still improving.
UWDP: Mike Leach has gotten a lot of attention nationally for how he's handled questions about Falk's injury this past weekend. Since you are familiar with his policies on not commenting on injuries, what's your take on this issue? Much ado about nothing?
CC: Yep, much ado about nothing. If you're a reporter and you have an ounce of professionalism, you should already know his policy before you ask him a stupid question. The way he sees it, if you're too lazy to do your job correctly, you deserve whatever scathing response he decides to give you. And while I think most Coug fans would have loved to get a quicker update on Falk's status and perhaps a bit more tactful answer, we also were left shaking our heads at the sideline reporter and Matt Calkins for expecting something different from Leach. I'll go ahead and side with Leach on this one: It's not his fault they're bad at their jobs.
UWDP: WSU has been running the ball a bit more this year and with much greater success - what's been the source of this improvement?
CC: The whole package. The offensive line is greatly improved -- bigger, deeper, more athletic -- but the three-headed monster of Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington is full of game-breaking potential. Everyone made a big deal out of the lack of rushing yards the first three years, but for the first two years, they simply couldn't run the ball. Last year, they could, but it was a struggle -- they'd pick up 3 or 4 yards at a time, which isn't terrible, but isn't what the Air Raid is all about. Now? They're picking up chunks, which is exactly what running backs are supposed to do in this offense. I don't think WSU will lean on the running game any more than usual on Friday, but its presence is a nice weapon for Bender.
UWDP: Bill Connelly's S&P system and ESPN's FPI still project a win for Washington in this game despite WSU's strong season so far - are you ready to drop-kick advanced metrics out a 3-story window when it comes to evaluating the Cougars?
CC: Yeah, kinda. It seems weird that some of the advanced metrics hate WSU so much, but I think a lot of that simply has to do with WSU's style confounding the laptops. The offense isn't very explosive, but it's very efficient. Shrug. WSU has been outplaying expectations all year, covering the spread in eight straight games. The only stat that matter is the one in the W column ... ya dig?
UWDP: The Apple Cup is once again on a Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Are Cougar fans as annoyed with this trend as I am?
And on that note of harmony, I'd like to thank Jeff Nusser from CougCenter for taking time to answer our questions.