A GRIP ON SPORTS
This is it. The final Sunday before college football begins. The end of summer, in a sense. I'm going into mourning. Read on.
• I love college football. The pomp, the pageantry, the color. But I just hate fall. The pomp, the pageantry, the color. Mainly the color. The reds and golds. USC colors. The colors of dead leaves, disappearing sunshine and a winter snowstorm right around the corner. It's enough to make me disappear under the covers until March. But I can't. I have to be here for the college football season. The next 12 to 15 Saturdays are about as good as it gets, though I am contractually obligated to point out for every winner there is a loser. Yes, I said it. Someone has to lose each game. And it just could be your team. Sorry. In this week of unbridled optimism that is the last one before the opening kickoff, I have to inject a sense of pessimism. It's not something I enjoy, but it's part of the job. To point out the good and the bad. And, at this time of the year, when every college football team is on its way to a 12-0 record, injecting any even-handed discussion about a team's future is considered pessimistic, at best, and being a hater, at worst. Which brings us to Washington State, the one college football team in the Inland Northwest about which I can speak with some form of knowledge, albeit a bit dated.
• The Cougars have a new coach (Mike Leach), a new Martin Stadium (video of which can be found here) and a new optimism. And there are aspects of that optimism that are well grounded. Leach has always been a success. He took over a moribund Texas Tech program and won right away (the Red Raiders were 7-6 his first year in Lubbock, though only 3-5 in the Big 12; their four nonconference games that year were against New Mexico, Utah State, North Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, all at home). His Texas Tech offenses were always among the NCAA leaders in passing and scoring, his teams were exciting to watch and they were ranked as high as second in the nation at one point. The cupboard in Pullman, especially on offense, is not bare. The quarterback position is talented, with starter Jeff Tuel (above) a proven commodity and backup Connor Halliday explosive – to say the least. The receivers, led by All-American Marquess Wilson, form a deep group that is not only talented, but thrives on hard work (they all understand the importance of blocking) and repetition. The running backs, while not flashy, are solid and experienced enough to compliment the passing attack in a myriad of ways. The kicker is accurate, the punter (who is also the kickoff specialist), while untested, is talented. There are some solid if not spectacular pieces on defense, from senior Buck linebacker Travis Long to junior cornerback Damante Horton to junior safety Deone Bucannon. There is enough on the roster from top to bottom to warrant a more optimistic outlook than any season since Alex Brink left town.
• But is it enough to win six games and go bowling? It isn't going to be easy. There are a lot of holes. The offensive line has been in the final five of the NCAA stats in sacks allowed the past four years. Leach's scheme will help there – quite possibly a lot – but there is no denying the group is a work in progress and must stay healthy, gel quickly and perform above expectations for the offense to click at an optimum level. That, however, is the only part of the offense that is a question mark. The defense is another story. The defensive line, already thin (in depth and size), was made even thinner by training camp injuries. The linebacker corps was stripped of much of its size and speed by graduation and discipline. The defensive backfield is experienced but not proven. Add it up and the defense is the make-or-break aspect of this team. Leach laid down the law when he arrived in town and didn't deviate from his expectations, but the net he threw caught three big fish who would have helped: Anthony Laurenzi, Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell. And their departures leave the front seven without much experience or depth. There is talent. Xavier Cooper (if healthy) has the build, Toni Pole the quickness, Darryl Monroe the smarts, Chester Su'a the physical presence – just to name a few – to compete at this level. But the lack of size and depth could mean teams will be able to dominate the line of scrimmage and the clock, keeping Leach's high-powered offense off the field and the scoreboard. The idea is to counter by gambling a bit, being willing to give up a big score once in a while in the hopes of forcing enough turnovers to turn the tide of the game. Sort of an Arena football philosophy. But it isn't easy to force turnovers without pressure up front, no matter how good the defensive secondary might be. And WSU's hasn't been all that good. Last season the rushing defense was OK, finishing middle of the pack in the nation. But the pass defense, either as rated by efficiency (111th nationally) or yardage (93rd), wasn't good. And about the only underclassman who is making an impact is freshman safety Taylor Taliulu, stepping into the free safety position held down the past couple years by Tyree Toomer. Even if you concede the new scheme is going to help by adding more pressure on the quarterback (the Cougars were 94th nationally in sacks, averaging 1.42 a game even with a blitz led by linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, still a part of St. Louis' training camp, and the upfront pressure from Long, who had a team-high four sacks), it's hard to imagine the group morphing into a collection of DeMarcus Wares and forcing a bunch of up-for-grab throws.
• Which brings us to the schedule. From this vantage point (ridiculously early considering no one has played yet), there seems to be four wins to pencil in (EWU, at UNLV, Colorado and UCLA, though the latter remains to be seen considering the new regime in Westwood). There also seems to be four losses (at BYU, Oregon, at Stanford and at Utah). Of course, there will probably be one upset in each of those categories, but that ends up being a wash. Which means the season, like most WSU seasons, hinge on four games: at Oregon State, California, at Arizona State and the Apple Cup. If everything plays out as it seems, win two of those tossup games and the Cougars are going bowling. Win just one and it's another stay-at-home holiday season. The optimist says, heck Oregon State isn't that good (even though the Beavers kicked the snot out of WSU last season), California can be had (ditto), ASU is beatable (OK, that one can be conceded) and, well the Apple Cup is the Apple Cup. It's in Pullman, it will probably snow and anything can happen (again, that's a good argument). But the realist (labeled a pessimist by most gung-ho fans) sees the challenges of those four games and is hard-pressed to pick two games WSU could be called a favorite. With that in mind, it seems a 5-7 record is the most logical choice though 6-6 is possible with a few good breaks and 4-8 with a bunch of bad ones.
• Washington State: It is game week and Leach is ready to talk about BYU, the current version and the one he saw while attending school there. Christian Caple was one of two folks attending Leach's press conference in person yesterday and he transcribed the answers for your reading enjoyment. It took two posts but you can see a glimpse into the inner Mike Leach here and here. The interview was the basis of this story in today's S-R as well. ... Christian also has his morning post here. ... The Seattle Times has its college football preview today and I picked out a few stories to pass along, including Bob Condotta's overview of the new kicking rules and two overviews of the Pac-12, this quick-paced one and Bud Withers' story on the changes around the conference. I must point out, once again, a small mistake. The old Martin Stadium press box had four toilets, two on each end, not two as the story says. This is one fact I can vouch for thanks to my over-50 physical liabilities. ... Our Jim Meehan has his college volleyball preview and WSU is the first school he addresses, though Idaho had the most success in matches yesterday. ... The Eugene Register-Guard's fine columnist, George Schroeder, is leaving for USA Today.
• Indians: I would like to write about a Spokane win. Can't. Either could Jim Meehan, who has this story from last night's 5-2 loss.
• Mariners: I would also like to write about a Mariner win, especially considering Kyle Seager's three-run home run (left) in the top of the first seemed to make that a possibility. But between that blow and Seager's solo dinger in the top of the ninth, the White Sox's Robin Ventura got tossed and Chicago scored five times for a 5-4 win. Another tough loss in the Windy City for the M's. ... It's Sunday and Larry Stone has his Seattle Times column, a notebook (in which he opines on Roger Clemens trying to restart his Hall of Fame clock, something that hit me the day I read he was pitching again), his awards and rankings.
• Seahawks: What did we learn from the Hawks easy win at Kansas City? What didn't we figure out? Well, Russell Wilson is good – though Steve Kelley is still a Matt Flynn guy – as is Robert Turbin. And Anthony McCoy is becoming a presence at tight end.
• Sounders: It's not often a player scores three goals in a soccer match. Or his team has six overall. But both happened in Los Angeles yesterday as the Sounders pounded Chivas USA, 6-2 to own the Home Depot field.
• Like Cinderella, I saw the clock strike midnight last night. And like Cinderella, I wasn't happy about it. It meant I was still awake and believe me, being awake at midnight isn't what I'm best at anymore. Thank goodness Kim's feet hurt and she wanted to go home. I accommodated her and was able to avoid any dancing. Still, midnight is awful late when you have to be up early to write this excellent prose (or drivel, however you want to label it). We're done for today. Of course, we'll be back tomorrow. Until then ...