To help us get to know the Washington State Cougars we enlisted our friends (enemies for this week) over at Coug Center to get an insiders look at Washington State and what we expect to see from them Saturday.
Last year was an odd one for Washington State, but all in all, it seemed to work out and Jake Dickert seems to have a lot of support. What are your overall impressions of the program right now?
Yeah, I think nine times out of ten, last year’s season hops the tracks and gets catastrophic before the end of October. It’s a real testament to the player leadership in the locker room that they avoided that, let alone fought a way into a bowl game.
This year feels - at least from the outside looking in - like there’s a lot of buy-in to Coach Dickert’s program. He’s very player-first, a lot of the tone-setting comes from the team leaders and the team’s responded well to it. He’s also the type of coach that says all the right things in a press conference which has won over a lot of the fanbase, leans maybe a little toward PJ Fleck with the “coachspeak” stuff but not so much that it’s annoying, and overall, it hasn’t seemed like he’s been out over his skis.
The players all seem excited to play for the guy and time will tell if he can recruit at the Power Five level, for now, I think most fans are just happy the program didn’t crater after all that turmoil.
Washington State is known for its high-flying offense to many, but Dickert has put an emphasis on defense to start his career. What philosophy have the Cougs adopted on that side of the football?
Coach Dickert talks about his defense using the same familiar descriptors a lot of guys do; “fast,” “aggressive,” and “multiple”. Really, that’s been Wazzu’s MO going back to when Alex Grinch was Defensive Coordinator under Mike Leach.
They have two very skilled Edge rushers in RJ Stone and Brennan Jackson. Both are high-motor, get into the backfield and cause havoc types of players. The Cougs will also do no small amount of interior stunts, getting their fast (if not slightly undersized) linebackers into the mix too. The goal here is to have chaotic run lanes, and you can imagine that’s a real boom or bust proposition but those are the sort of risks you have to take when you don’t have a size advantage.
They’ll show those pressures up front and bail into zone too - like walk a Mike into the A-gap and have him sprint to the field side flat. And in general, they’ll play a mix of zone and man, and crash a strong safety down for run support when not in passing downs. The “multiple” part isn’t just lip service, they’ll throw a few different looks at an offense and gamble with some run fits.
The main philosophy for them is takeaways. They’ll be fast to the ball and try to create as much backfield chaos as they can, and most of the secondary are ballhawks.
Who are some players that Wisconsin fans should be on the lookout for on defense?
We mentioned the edge guys but I’ll type it out again because they really are that important to what the defense does; RJ Stone and Brennan Jackson. Daiyan Henley is a Nevada transfer with four years of experience and a game-clinching interception last week. Travion Brown at Mike is probably one of the better all-around athletes on the team, and Armani Marsh is a leader in the defensive backfield at Nickel.
Turning to the offense now, Washington State went out and landed some help in the portal offensively at quarterback and a familiar name to Wisconsin fans at running back. What have been your thoughts on those two thus far?
There’s been an excitement for Nakia Watson since he was featured in the Sun Bowl and did about as much as you could hope for with that situation – the offensive line was stitched together with duct tape and scout team guys.
You see signs of him being an ever-down back that can run downhill between the tackles, and then other times he just can’t seem to break through. Most of us thought he’d figure more prominently in the backfield last season, but Deon McIntosh was the one to step up into the second spot behind Max Borghi. Both are gone now and Nakia should get the heavy workload, backed up by a couple of freshmen.
Cameron Ward has been everything you’d expect from an experienced quarterback. He’s a calm, steady presence on the sideline – even when things weren’t going the way they should last weekend you never saw the bad body language. It’s obvious the coaching staff puts a lot of trust in him to run the offense, and they’ll say as much in interviews. He’s the type of quarterback you give the keys of the car to and let him ride.
And his talent lived up to the hype as well. Really quick release and scans the field well, with an arm that can work sideline to sideline. This is the same system he ran at Incarnate Word, where he threw for 4,648 yards, 47 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last year. The same play call language, same signals, same everything – you can tell he’s running the show and operating at a little higher level than the receivers at the moment, though we have some confidence that’ll come together pretty quickly.
What do you feel are the main areas of concern with this football team after seeing its first week of action?
It was tough to get a thermometer reading after last week’s game. The offense would look unstoppable and then fumble. The defense would force a third down then give up a huge pass play. It looked like a team that needed to get a game under its belt, that was never that comfortable. Some teams rebound from dull first games without an issue and there’s no reason to think this one can’t.
After the game, Coach Dickert said it’s better to have learning experiences when you still win and I’d have to agree with him on that. Wazzu’s had a team lose to an FCS school on opening weekend and go to the Holiday Bowl (and the year before that, they lost to Portland State in week 1 and beat Miami in the Sun Bowl).
We do weird stuff like that all the time, it doesn’t phase most of us anymore.
What matchup will you be keyed in on Saturday afternoon?
Braelon Allen versus the Cougar defense, specifically the interior DL play from WSU. That guy is the real deal. If WSU can’t slow down the run game it’ll put pressure on a Wazzu offense that hasn’t quite clicked yet. Miss scoring on a few drives and you get behind the clock fast against a team that can run as well as the Badgers.
I’m also a little excited to see what Bobby Engram can do with the Wisconsin offense. Bobby has no shortage of fans up here in the Northwest.
I’m going to be an optimist and say the Camp Randall environment and ranked opponent bring out the best in the Cougs and they make it competitive.
WSU 31 – 38 Wisconsin