Oregon heads up to Seattle tomorrow night for their first road test. It hasn't been an easy year for the Cougs, but that doesn't mean they couldn't give us some info on their team. Jeff Nusser was kind enough to answer a few of our questions on the Cougars.
We answered some of their questions here, and make sure you head over to Coug Center to get all their stellar coverage of the matchup.
The one thing that seemed sure under Mike Leach was that the offense, with a capable QB/WR combo in Jeff Tuel and Marquess Wilson, was going to put up a lot of points. Unfortunately, the offense seems to have actually regressed from where they were last season under Paul Wulff. What has happened, and why has the unit seemed so underwhelming?
Well, people tried to tell us that the Air Raid is highly nuanced and takes some time for teams to pick up, but there was a school of thought -- one espoused by me -- that the transition would be easier because of the pass-heavy nature of the Cougs' offense under offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. (WSU passed on about 60 percent of plays last year.) After watching the team struggle, my new pet theory is that it might actually be harder to go from a pass offense to the Air Raid than from a run offense to the Air Raid. Leach, who is very particular about how he wants things done, is asking them to change their pass game habits, rather than just learn new pass game skills. The quarterbacks have seemed to struggle with making the correct reads, and the receivers have seemed to struggle with finding -- and settling in -- the open spaces the Air Raid does such a great job of creating. At some point, it will click. But not yet.
Conversely, we knew the defense would struggle, and that it would take time for Leach to get adequate talent on that side of the ball. This has largely come to fruition, but what have the bright spots been defensively thus far this season?
Travis Long has been very good from his Buck linebacker spot. It's a hybrid pass rusher/OLB position, and he's demonstrated excellent versatility -- you'll even see him line up at MLB occasionally. The middle of the front seven also has been pretty stout and more than respectable against the run; nose tackles Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole get a lot of the credit for that, as does starting middle linebacker Darryl Monroe. The problem, of course, is that those guys don't cover receivers. As soon as teams realize they don't even have to try to run to move the ball, it's pretty much over.
I don't think anybody has any illusion as to the likely outcome of this game. That said, the Cougars, for whatever reason, have given the Ducks more trouble than expected the past two seasons. Are there any areas maybe flying under the radar where you think Washington State can give Oregon trouble?
Well, I think the answer to the previous question touches on one thing -- if Oregon is set on running, that plays into WSU's defensive strength. The Cougars have been susceptible, at times, to runs on the edges, but the rush defense in general has been pretty darn good. Offensively, if Oregon insists on blitzing, that's probably to WSU's benefit as well, as Connor Halliday is a much better passer against single coverage than when he's trying to find holes in zones. Then there's the mental aspect. Under Paul Wulff, WSU tended to play much better when there was nothing to lose -- when nobody expected anything out of them -- which I think explains the games the Cougs have played against Oregon the last two years. They're pretty down after blowing a late lead to Colorado; that loss could be the point at which they go in the toilet, or the point at which they decide to have a little fortitude and fight back. I honestly don't know which it will be.
Obviously, it's been a bit rougher start to the Leach era than many were expecting. Does the start change your overall expectations for Mike Leach long-term? And what are your expectations for the rest of the year?
Nope. The only thing that's changed is the short-term expectation of how this season unfolds. Before the year, it was assumed by most that this team was bowl bound. I never believed it was a foregone conclusion, but I also figured they'd be able to get to six wins with some Mike Leach smoke and mirrors. That's obviously in serious question at this point. But long term? The only people doubting him now are the ones who doubted him when he was hired -- and there weren't too many of those kinds of people to begin with. The vast majority of fans believe he just needs to get some of his own guys in the program before it dramatically turns around.