Before this week’s match-up between the Arizona Wildcats and the Washington State Cougars, we checked in with CougCenter’s Jeff Nusser to get his take on the Cougars’ quarterback, the running game, and the consistently slow starts under Mike Leach.
David Potts: There have been rumblings that NFL scouts are starting to warm more and more to Luke Falk as a potential NFL quarterback. How has Falk elevated his play this season?
Jeff Nusser: Honestly, it’s generally just been more of the same awesomeness for Falk. The numbers are marginally better across the board -- higher completion percentage, higher yards per attempt, he’s on pace for a couple hundred more yards, etc. -- but it hasn’t felt like he’s taken some big step forward with the passing game this season, and he’s still got some issues he’s working on. He struggled early in the year with a problem that we thought he’d moved past (holding onto the ball too long), and somewhere along the way, a new problem developed: Slow starts. The offense frequently sputters out of the gate, and Falk’s stats are significantly worse in the first quarter than in all other quarters. (Obviously, these two things go together.) But he’s as accurate and tough as ever, two things that surely have gotten the attention of NFL scouts. I’m not sure if the arm strength is good enough for the NFL right now, though, and that’s likely why scouts tend to think 3rd or 4th round for him right now.
David Potts: It’s weird to say, but the Cougs have been pretty good at running the ball this season. To be sure, that still means Washington State is ranked 11th in the conference in rushing offense, but both Jamal Morrow and James Williams are averaging over 6 yards per carry with over 50 carries each. How has Mike Leach been able to effectively deploy the running game this season?
Jeff Nusser: The Cougs definitely still pick their spots to run, like they always have, but I think they’re a lot better this year simply because the offensive line is better at run blocking and the running backs are a little bit better at running. There was some concern coming into the season that losing left tackle Joe Dahl (5th round pick of the Detroit Lions) and left guard Gunnar Eklund would set the team back, but those guys were replaced by Andre Dillard and Cody O’Connell. Dillard (left tackle) is arguably the most athletic offensive lineman we’ve had in a decade, while O’Connell -- all 6-foot-8, 350 pounds of him -- has been the best player on the line, a total bulldozer at left guard.
Then there’s the backs themselves. Gerard Wicks was far and away the team’s leading rusher last season -- in both attempts and yards -- but he’s been bypassed by Morrow and Williams, who are each more dynamic. Williams, in particular, is a game-breaking type back who has exceptional acceleration and change of direction while also running with more power than you’d expect out of a guy who is 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. And he’s only a redshirt freshman.
Wicks (6-foot, 227 pounds) is still around to whack people, too.
David Potts: Early in the year, Washington State suffered close losses to both Eastern Washington and Boise State. Since then, the Cougars haven’t lost a game and are in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 North. What changed after those first two losses to propel Washington State to the position they’re in today?
Jeff Nusser: For whatever reason, the team has struggled with slow starts under Mike Leach -- the Cougs have lost all five of his openers. And if you even look back to last season, the only reason they didn’t start 0-2 was because Rutgers was pretty much hapless as WSU closed out one of its many fourth quarter comebacks. But what they’ve shown in the past two seasons is tremendous resiliency. After last season’s 2-2 start -- which had dropped WSU to just 14-27 under Leach -- I openly wondered if he was the guy to lead the program.
But his “play the next play” mantra that sounded so hokey for so long really started to take root and the team just locked in on each game as if it was the most important of the year and forgot about the disappointing losses. It led me to flip around my thoughts on Leach, and even led me to preach patience after the 0-2 start to 2016 seemed to torpedo the most anticipated season in nearly 15 years right out of the gate. Thanks to the leadership of guys like Falk and wide receiver Gabe Marks, this group is so incredibly tough, and that’s why they were able to just focus on Idaho, then Oregon, then Stanford … etc.
Last week was a great example of this. It was plain to the world that WSU was ripe for a letdown against Oregon State after the tough and emotional four-game stretch that ended with WSU’s first win in Tempe in 15 years. And sure enough, the Beavers raced out -- literally -- to a 21-0 lead on the Cougs. But WSU started to get right late in the first half before exploding for a third quarter for the ages, and except for a little special teams miscue that allowed OSU to briefly retake the lead, WSU was firmly in control the rest of the way. The resiliency is just amazing.
David Potts: What is your prediction for this week’s game?
Jeff Nusser: Unfortunately, I think Arizona is kind of in for it (again). Last week was the letdown for WSU, and after two weeks on the road, the Cougs are finally back home, playing a day game, and it’ll be in front of a full and rowdy house for dad’s weekend. There’s also some off-field turmoil around the dismissal of nose tackle Robert Barber that’s served as a rallying point for the team, and unless Arizona is able to take advantage of his absence -- OSU did for a while -- I think this one could get ugly. I get the feeling WSU is ready to paste someone, and it sure doesn’t look like the Wildcats have what it takes to weather that storm. Let’s go 48-21, Cougs.