Mike Price majored in physical education, but one of his favorite subjects appears to be chemistry.
Washington State’s ninth-year football coach acknowledged this week that his current team reminds him of the 1992 edition, which went 9-3 and won the Copper Bowl.
“The chemistry on that team was very similar to the chemistry on this team,” Price said. “We get along real well.”
With good reason. The Cougars are 4-0 overall, 2-0 in the Pacific-10 Conference and ranked 15th in the nation. They are expected by many to beat Oregon today in Eugene, which would give Price his second 5-0 start since becoming coach in 1989.
The ‘92 team started 6-0, feasting on outmatched teams like Montana, Temple and Oregon State. This year’s squad has been far more impressive, beating UCLA and USC in its first two games alone.
Team chemistry can be tough to quantify, but it’s often a product of winning. As such, it’s easily overrated, although these Cougars do seem to be more agreeable than the bunch that went 5-6 last season.
They’re certainly more unified than the ‘95 team, which went 3-8 and had more splinters than your average park bench.
What makes this team different?
For one, quarterback Ryan Leaf is spreading the ball around. Last year, there was tension among the receivers because some felt Leaf looked only to Chad Carpenter, who has since moved on to the NFL.
As Leaf and the remaining receivers have matured, those tensions have vanished. Now, the Cougars’ five-man receiving rotation is affectionately billed as the Fab Five.
“It’s like night and day,” senior flanker Shawn McWashington said. “There couldn’t have been a Fab Five last year because there wasn’t that kind of unity.”
Last year’s team may have also lacked leadership. Leaf was an unproven sophomore and there were only seven prominent seniors with deep roots at WSU.
This team has 15 prominent seniors, most of whom have been in the program at least four years.
Leaf’s only previous appearance at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium came as a freshman two years ago, when he played on special teams and lined up briefly as a receiver.
“Of course, Chad Davis didn’t throw me the ball,” Leaf quipped.
Oregon won that game 26-7. Leaf, who backed up Davis most of that year, threw three passes in mop-up duty in the game. All fell incomplete.
Injuries have robbed Oregon of depth at linebacker, but the Ducks still have Peter Sirmon.
When Sirmon was a senior at Walla Walla High School, he made a recruiting visit to WSU. Leaf was his host. “They have continual conversations during games,” Price said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Cougars at Oregon