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5 Questions: Washington State Cougars

With the Washginton State game coming up this weekend, we asked 5 questions to Nuss from CougCenter. Our questions, and his answers are below. Their questions and our answers are posted at their site.

WSU had a bout of Oregon-itis this last weekend, losing their top 2 QBs. However, 3rd string QB Marshall Lobbestael stepped up and won Pac-10 player of the week honors, bringing some light to a very dark season. With his only performance against Portland State, how do you feel he will adjust to Pac-10 defenses?

Your guess is as good as ours. We just don't know much about him, and I don't think the coaching staff really does, either, having given the bulk of the repetitions over the past seven months or so to Gary Rogers and Kevin Lopina. What we do know is that he looked flat-out awesome on Saturday, like a classic WSU quarterback: Tall in the pocket, moving the offfense efficiently by using an incredible array of throws. He certainly possesses all the physical tools.

But, of course, it was against Portland State, and therein lies the rub. Do you put less stock in it because it was against a middle-of-the-road FCS school that was being manhandled up front and clearly was tiring? Do you put more stock in it because he went into the game as the third quarterback and was doing it in a game in which he wasn't expected to play, with a gameplan designed for someone else? It's tough to say, but I'd bet most Coug fans are hedging their bets and leaning towards the first one -- this season has just been so disappointing, I think we're afraid to get our hopes up much. I think we know that he's the future, but we're hesitant to believe that will translate into any kind of real success this year.

But if we are to get optimistic, there seems to be one reason: Everyone around Lobbestael loves him. The guy has a "little moxie in him" (Paul Wulff's words), and has flat out been a winner wherever he's been. He seems to be a heck of a leader, taking Oak Harbor to the Washington state 4A championship as a senior, and let's just say that Oak Harbor generally isn't much of a high school powerhouse around here. He's reportedly a tireless worker and studier of film, perhaps the reason why he looked more comfortable in this new offense in less than one half of play than either of the two guys in front of him have at any point this season. His teammates have already given him "Ocho Rojo," and seem to really be rallying behind him in a way we didn't see with the previous two quarterbacks. We'll see if it translates into tangible success.

Paul Wulff hasn't gotten off to the best start, but this isn't really his fault. How do you feel with him moving forward? What are his strengths as a coach that can take you to the next level?

The beginning of the Pual Wulff era has been rocky, to say the least. The team has been worse than any of us expected, but perhaps we should have expected this. At every turn heading into the season, Wulff consistently said he was surprised with the lack of depth of talent and the lack of fundamentals. He made no promises that this was going to be a successful year in terms of wins and losses. We were in denial.

I bring that up because I think that says something about the vision Wulff has for this program. Even as the losses mounted the first few weeks, you could see that there were going to be no shortcuts, that they were going to stay the course in an effort to make bigger gains long term. It's reminded more than a few of us of where WSU basketball was about five years ago, when Dick Bennett came in and had to revamp the whole thing. It was real, real ugly at first, but eventually the lumps paid off, and now the program looks ready to be a consistent winner for more than just a couple of years. Bennett resisted the urge to take shortcuts in an effort to win just a little bit more earlier, and Wulff appears to be doing the same thing. He has his eyes squarely fixed on what it's going to take to turn this team into a long-term, consistent winner.

The guy experienced unprecedented success at Eastern Washington by outworking everyone around him and turning over every rock to find recruits who could be successful -- precisely the way you have to do things in Pullman. I have no doubt that he's going to be successful at this school. It just might take a little time, because this program is in far, far worse shape than any of us could have imagined.

I know absolutely nothing about the Cougar defense. What should I know going into this weekend's game?

Seriously, though, none of us really knows what to expect this weekend. There were wholesale changes designed to put more speed on the field after the Baylor spread option debacle, starting with Xavier Hicks returning to the lineup at safety. You might have heard of Hicks, who was suspended the first three games for a much-publicized assault conviction that stemmed from -- I am not making this up -- putting rubbing alcohol in a roommate's contact case after a dispute over a bill.

Other changes included moving Alfonso Jackson, a notorious hard hitter, from corner back to safety, and moving Myron Beck, who started the first three games at free safety, up to outside linebacker. It resulted in the demotion of Chima Nwachukwu, who had started the first 15 games of his career at either corner or safety, but allowed the Cougs to put him in the game in nickel sets, which they run more often than most teams.

Obviously, it worked against Portland State, but nobody's pretending that you can even draw comparisons between PSU and Oregon. As to whether it will make any kind of difference on Saturday ... well, I wouldn't count on it. We're still just flat overmatched.

You'll be able to run the ball. A lot. In fact, you might not have to pass the ball more than 15 or 20 times if you don't want to. After deceiving us with a better-than-expected showing against Oklahoma State, this is, quite possibly, the worst defensive line in recent WSU history. Our tackles are little more than fat and slow, and our ends have shown practically no ability to generate any pressure on the quarterback. Through the first three games, we had just two(!) sacks, and could only muster three sacks against PSU, despite the Vikings throwing the ball 49 times behind a smallish line in that silly run-and-shoot.

Oh, and we're prone to the big running play, because although middle linebacker Greg Trent is experienced and a sure tackler, he can often overpursue in his enthusiasm to make a play. Combine that with the giant holes at the point of attack thanks to the suckitude of the line, and you end up with plays like these:

In short, I don't think we're really going to be able to stop Oregon at all, especially if Darron Thomas plays as much as he should. The last really athletic, spread option QB we faced (Baylor's Robert Griffin) ran for 225 yards and threw for 129 more. We do have more speed on defense than we did then, but that probably means we'll be tackling guys eight to 10 yards downfield instead of 20 to 40 yards downfield.

How does Washington State win this game? Most Oregon fans aren't giving Wazzu much of a chance. Here's your chance to show them how they're wrong.

The Cougs really do have some talented weapons on offense, with future NFL pick Brandon Gibson and current NCAA 400-meter hurdles champ Jeshua Anderson out wide, and Dwight Tardy and Chris Ivory in the backfield. If the patchwork left side of the offensive line can hold up, they just might be able to score some points -- assuming they can hang onto the ball. The offense has accounted for 14(!) turnovers in four games, including 10 interceptions. In addition to keeping the offense from finding the end zone, those mistakes have just been crippling to a defense that, as we explained, isn't real good to begin with. Operating on a short field does them no favors.

Now, none of those interceptions have been thrown by Lobbestael, who had nary a forced throw into coverage against PSU. If he can be smart and not throw any picks, and we keep from putting the ball on the ground -- we've had 12 total fumbles this year, though only four have been recovered by opponents -- then there's a real chance to move the ball.

The other half of that equation is a complete inability this season to take the ball away from opponents. The defense has only been able to come up with three takeaways against FBS competition, leading to a No. 117 ranking nationally in turnover margin. If the Ducks try to get cute and pass the ball more than they need to, throwing some picksin the process -- preferably one that goes for six -- then the Cougs have a shot to keep it close.

But a lot of things would have to go our way for that to happen. I wouldn't give us much of a chance, either.

Washington State is a few years removed from frequent 10 win seasons. What the hell happened? How are you guys coping with this demise of the program, and what are your expectations for the next few years?

The explanation is simple: We just don't have the kind of talent we did back then. I was playing NCAA '06 on my XBox last night -- just for old time's sake -- and I was running all over the place with Jerome Harrison, throwing deep fades to Jason Hill, sacking the quarterback with Mkristo Bruce, lighting up running backs with Will Derting ... and all I could think of was, "Damn! We had some good players!" No more.

How did it happen? As former coach Bill Doba put it, we got "a little too big for our britches." The coaching staff forgot who we were, forgot the who the kinds of players are that will come to Pullman. They shot too high, missed out on some guys -- either they committed elsewhere late or couldn't stay on campus -- and what you see is the leftovers. Once Mike Price's guys left the program, there was very little remaining. Yeah, there are some talented individuals, but there is practically no depth of ready-to-contribute talent. Combine that with the injuries we suffered in training camp and players learning the first completely new schemes on offense and defense in 20 years and you get the worst team in the Pac-10.

Yeah, it sucks. But Coug fans aren't nearly as despondent over what's going on right now as you might think. We recognize that the 10-win seasons were a bit of an aberration, and that it's pretty unrealistic to expect that every year. That said, this program sunk far lower than what is acceptable, and as long as we get this thing turned back around in the right direction -- and we're confident it is, as our 2009 recruiting class already is shaping up to be the best in years -- we'll be pleased. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Washington has sucked worse than we have for most of the past decade. We're not expecting miracles; as long as we don't get stuck in a prolonged rebuilding project like the Huskies, we'll be happy.

Big thanks to Nuss for taking the time to answer these questions. We wish them good luck in the future, and to an Apple Cup win later this year.