Every week, I hope to ask a few questions of a journalist who covers Eastern Washington’s next football opponent. Actually, this idea was the brainchild of our own Christian Caple, who covers the Cougars – 24/7 it seems. To give some perspective on the Cougars, Christian answered five questions I posed to him earlier this week. Read on….
Jim: How are the players treating this game emotionally (nervous - “Gosh, lose this one and the whole season's flushed,” or more even-keeled?) And the coaches?
Christian: I think they're all so ticked off about the way they played against BYU that they really aren't focusing on who they're playing this week, because Mike Leach has been so clear that they simply need to take care of their own business and improve from last week. Leach is a believer that it shouldn't matter who you're playing, anyway, because if you perform the same way in the game as you do in practice, everything will take care of itself. So I think they have a lot of respect for Eastern and what they've accomplished, but WSU seems more focused on flipping their mental approach and taking care of the basics. They didn't do that last week.
Jim: The WSU pass rush on Padron will be a big factor Saturday. Can you tell from one game how good that pass rush will be this season?
Christian: It wasn't great, but they made some plays up front that were encouraging. I know Kyle Padron is a pretty adept scrambler who is smart about throwing the ball away and using his legs to set up the pass, so he's a tough guy to put a ton of pressure on in the first place. WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske loves his blitzes, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he tested Eastern's line with a bunch of different looks early on. But EWU's receivers have the kind of size to make things awfully difficult for any corners trying to play on an island.
Jim: You posted that Connor Halliday got some snaps with the first unit in practice the other day? Do you have a sense of whether Leach might make a change if Tuel is struggling and the Cougs are down a score at the half?
Christian: I can't imagine a change would come that soon. Tuel may not have played his best game against BYU, but he wasn't THAT bad. And I don't think Leach is the kind of coach who's going to make a quarterback decision, then renege on it after only one or two games. Of course, it's hard to say how close Halliday was to Tuel during camp, but any change this week would have to be considered a pretty big surprise, I think.
Jim: Offensive line play has been a big issue for the Cougs in recent years. Do you think the O-line is really much better than in past years, and if so, why?
Christian: Coaches weren't particularly pleased with the way they played on Thursday, but I don't think they were terrible or anything. They're a little thin in terms of depth, but they've got some experience among the starters and offensive line coach Clay McGuire said he's still trying to find the combination that best suits their top five players. It looks like Wade Jacobson is moving to right tackle, with Dan Spitz moving back to guard. So it'll be interesting to see if that change can help them, if that is what they decide to do.
Jim: I keep hearing that the Cougar secondary struggled against BYU, but I thought they were a veteran group. What's your assessment of the DBs as they face an offense that promises to go deep?
Christian: They're in for quite the challenge. They do have experience, yes, but they haven't been particularly stellar the past few years. Taylor Taliulu is a true freshman starting at free safety, so you figure he's only going to improve the more he plays. Damante Horton is coming off a fairly strong season at cornerback, but he's a little banged up with an apparent left arm injury (though my guess is he still plays). Their breakdowns against BYU were all mental. BYU threw three touchdown passes in that game. Each of them was the result of a blown assignment or mental error. Clean those up, and that group looks a lot better.