Cougs Take Field Of Dreams Pac-10 Trend Has WSU Looking Good
Speed. Quickness. Innovation. More speed.
Those qualities have helped Pacific-10 Conference teams overwhelm their Big Ten counterparts during this college football postseason, lending credence to the theory that a Rose Bowl victory by No. 8 Washington State might not be such an upset, after all.
Top-ranked Michigan (11-0) has held opponents to less than nine points per game this season, but the Wolverines have yet to face an offense that even faintly resembles WSU’s multiple-receiver attack.
The Cougars (10-1) averaged 42 points per game.
“I like the anticipation of this one,” WSU receivers coach Mike Levenseller said, savoring the matchup between his Fab Five receivers and a Michigan secondary that includes Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.
“I just really think the physical side of this game is going to be on the perimeter,” Levenseller added. “I think that’s where the game will be won and lost.”
WSU’s top five receivers, led by 200-pound senior Chris Jackson, can bench press 340 pounds on average. They have yet to be pushed around, even against some of the nation’s most physical defensive backs - USC’s Brian Kelly, Arizona’s Chris McAlister and Arizona State’s Mitchell Freedman had only moderate success.
“Our guys will not be intimidated,” Levenseller said.
The same goes for Michigan’s secondary, a strong and aggressive group that has flourished under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann.
Opponents are averaging just 8.4 yards per completed pass, a full yard below the NCAA record, set by Oklahoma in 1986.
Woodson led the Big Ten with seven interceptions. Andre Weathers, a k a The Other Cornerback, returned an interception for a touchdown against Ohio State.
Safeties Marcus Ray and Tommy Hendricks have been excellent against the run, although their speed could be a concern against receivers like WSU’s.
“But our secondary is not going to be the key,” said Ray, who picked off five passes this season. “The real key is our defensive front. If our defensive front can get pressure on Ryan Leaf, hope to rattle him, make him hurry, then we’ll be able to make some plays.”
If Glen Steele and the Michigan defensive line can pressure Leaf, the Wolverines would be able to keep more players in coverage. WSU expects a mixture of blitzes and conventional rushes.
“They’re really good at mixing things up, but when you zone blitz and do some of the things they do, you can get burned,” Levenseller said. “If Ryan can find that guy, then that’s one for us. If we can’t find that guy, it’s one for them. That’s kind of how this game is going to go.”
Had Michigan played Purdue this season, the Cougars might have a better handle on what to expect. The Boilermakers, under former WSU offensive coordinator Joe Tiller, are the only Big Ten team that spreads the field with four receivers.
Arizona State, the only team to beat WSU this season, blitzed Leaf consistently. The tactic produced two pivotal turnovers in the fourth quarter, but Leaf passed for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
The Cougars had trouble running the ball in that game. A strong performance from tailback Michael Black (1,157 yards) seems critical today.
“The running game is crucial to the overall offensive game plan,” WSU offensive lineman Jason McEndoo said. “If we can run, they’ll have to get out of their blitz package.”
Michigan’s offense - conservative, methodical, predictable and maddeningly efficient - presents concerns for a WSU defense that has lacked consistency.
The Wolverines like to run the ball with Chris Howard and Anthony Thomas, a pair of bruising backs. Tight end Jerame Tuman is Brian Griese’s favorite target, although Howard leads the team with 35 catches.
“The tight end is covered like a wet blanket and still catches it,” WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba lamented. “He does a great job, but the thing that impresses me about them is their offensive line.
“They’re tall, lean, strong-looking, athletic kids who have good feet.”
WSU’s defense could use some help from Leaf, Black and the rest of the offense. Sustaining a few long drives could be vital.
“Our offense has got to go out and give us a rest,” Doba said. “If we’re on the field too damn long, they’ll wear you down.
“They have big running backs. If you watch the film, the yardage after the first hit is unbelievable. It looks like it’s stopped behind the line, and then it’s a 4-yard gain.”
What will happen remains a mystery.
If the Aloha and Sun bowls were any indication, WSU has to like its chances.
Washington looked like a track squad compared to Michigan State, a discrepancy that was reflected on the scoreboard (51-23).
Arizona State, meanwhile, shut down an Iowa offense that had been considered among the Big Ten’s most skilled, featuring running back Tavian Banks and receiver Tim Dwight.
The Cougars like their chances.
“Those guys keep saying we’re confident, we know what we’re doing, we’re great, we’re unbeaten, but we’ve never seen this thing before,” Levenseller said, referring to Michigan’s defense. “They all grant that. I mean, it only takes one mistake for us to go the length.
“On the other hand,” he added, “it takes one mistake by us for them to get it turned over and go the other way.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos