Ahead of this week’s landmark game in Pullman, we chatted with CougCenter’s Jeff Nusser for a little insight on WSU’s team at the 2018 CFB midway point.
1. WSU had a really inauspicious offseason. The Hilinski tragedy. The Tennessee coaching job-nevermind-nonjob. Departure of numerous coaching assistants including an excellent DC in Alex Grinch. Hercules Mata’afa is now a Minnesota Viking. Etc.
And yet here are the Cougs at 5-1, and really could be undefeated if not for the late-game USC letdown. How have you guys managed this surprisingly successful run thus far?
CC: Believe me, it surprises most of us as much as it surprises you. The thought was that it would be a struggle to get to bowl eligibility for all the reasons you laid out above. But something that’s become abundantly clear about Mike Leach is that he’s a heck of a lot more than the offensive mad scientist that he’s often portrayed as. That sells him far short of what he is as a head coach. The culture he has instilled -- be a team, be the most excited to play, be the best at doing your job -- now runs so deep that even when Hercules Mata’afa, Luke Falk, Cole Madison and 60% of the coaching staff walks out the door, things just keep humming along.
Of course, there’s very much a practical element to what takes place on the field, and you can chalk a lot of that up to graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew. After Tyler’s death, there was definitely some trepidation about who would step up to not just lead the offense, but lead the team. He’s commanding the offense in a way we didn’t even see from Falk the last couple of years, running the Air Raid as it’s supposed to be run. This offense is more explosive than it’s been in years, and that’s what’s fueling the team’s success.
2. Mike Leach is one of college football’s most interesting characters, from his unique offense to his eccentric personal stylings. But aside from the Air Raid & books on Geronimo & whatnot, he’s always struck me as a bit of a cipher. Don’t know whether it’s just the strange flat shark’s eyes (“black eyes, like a doll’s eyes” as Quint said) or the fact that he rarely shows even a hint of emotion, but it’s hard to get a glimpse of the person behind the persona.
As Cougs fans who closely follow the team, can you give any insight into what Leach might be like when he’s not stone-faced on the sideline or delivering aphorisms to the press? Is he just always like this?
We basically see what you see. He’s a bit of an enigma, at times telling the quirky stories everyone loves, at other times behaving churlishly with certain members of the media, at other times spreading conspiracy theories on Twitter. It’s easy for him to become a bit of a caricature.
To be honest, I don’t actually care about any of this. I don’t approve of his political views and wish he’d be nicer to some people, but as long as he keeps winning football games, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. It’s not like we have to be best friends.
3. Who’s one WSU player for us Oregon fans to watch on offense, and what should we look for? Not necessarily your most prolific offensive player - let’s hear about guys that provide something unique for your team or are otherwise instructive.
This is a really tough question to answer because of the Air Raid. We already talked about Minshew above, but the other five skill guys play crucial roles and share the playmaking responsibility. The ball gets spread around: Six different receivers have at least 200 yards receiving, and that includes a running back. They’re all very dangerous, which is what has allowed Minshew to be so very good.
One thing that we’ve noticed over the years of watching this offense is that each quarterback has his own area of the field that he feels most comfortable attacking. For Minshew, that’s outside to the right. The Z receivers -- Easop Winston Jr. and Dezmon Patmon -- have combined for 78 targets, 54 receptions, 796 yards and seven touchdowns (ed. note: also Dezmon is tall, oh no!). They’ve been WSU’s two most explosive targets, so look for WSU to attack that area of the field perhaps a bit more than the others.
4. And how about one on defense?
The defense has had a rough time keeping up with the offense over the past few weeks. That side of the field just didn’t quite have the same horses to step in with the graduation of guys such as Mata’afa and nose tackle Daniel Ekuale. So, it’s the return of inside linebacker Peyton Pelluer that has given them the most help. Pelluer was granted a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his foot early last season, and he’s been an absolute stud. He’s leading the team in tackles, he’s tied for the team lead in tackles for loss, and he’s got a couple of sacks. He’s your quintessential stout inside linebacker, providing physical run support to a defensive line that’s been questionable at times. He’ll be the guy WSU will really lean on to try and slow down Oregon’s rushing attack.
5. What’s an advantage WSU might be able to exploit against Oregon this Saturday?
It seems one thing Oregon’s defense has been pretty good at, for the most part, is getting after the quarterback. That’ll be a challenge on Saturday; Minshew has been sacked on just 1.6 percent of his dropbacks, fourth best in the nation. Much of that is the rebuilt offensive line, which has been very good. But a lot of that is Minshew. He’s decisive with his throws, often getting rid of the ball ahead of the rush, but he’s also fairly mobile in the pocket. He’s not Justin Herbert when he gets into the open field, but he’s got enough speed to make a team pay if they lose contain and aren’t paying attention to him. His ability to extend plays should allow him to find the open guy, whether that’s in terms of the initial play or in terms of allowing guys to break open in the scramble drill.
6. What’s a weakness or disadvantage specific to this matchup that you guys are worried about?
Our secondary has been dreadful ever since getting scorched by Eastern Washington. They’ve had particular problems with athletic mismatches, which was on full display against USC. To that end, we’re extremely concerned about what Dillon Mitchell might do to us.
7. And the obligatory predictions - let’s do the final score, plus one other key team or player stat. What say you?
I don’t know how Vegas set an over/under less than 70, because I’m anticipating this game having two teams in the 40s. Both offenses are great, both defenses are suspect. The Cougars have home field advantage -- which is going to be turned up to 11, thanks to the arrival of College GameDay -- and are coming off a bye. The Ducks are traveling after that got-dang war they just fought against Washington last weekend; that spells letdown to me. I think those things make the difference: 45-42, WSU.
Thanks again for your time, Jeff!