1 The Cougars must start faster. Or at least faster than last year. Washington State scored all of six points in the first quarter last season – a field goal each against California and Oregon State – while giving up 176. Yes, 176 points in 180 minutes. That offensive – and defensive – ineptitude was built in many ways, from special-teams breakdowns, to offensive turnovers, to defensive lapses. With such early deficits, game plans – the meticulous work preparing the best ways to attack an opponent – are often forgotten like yesterday’s hamburger wrappers. At least the running game part of it. The opponent’s defenses, free of constraints, were able to attack the WSU offense with impunity, knowing they had a cushion to build on.
2 WSU’s defense has a goal of forcing three turnovers a game. It must reach that objective if the Cougars want to win. The Oklahoma State offense under new coordinator Dana Holgorsen will be a high-risk, high-reward model, if it mirrors his group last season at Houston. The Cowboys may have a new starting quarterback (former baseball player Brandon Weeden) but they welcome back running back Kendall Hunter, limited by injuries last season after earning All-American honors in 2008. With a good scheme and weapons like Hunter, stopping the spread the entire game, even if top returning receiver Hubert Anyiam is unable to play with a foot injury, will be a near impossible task for the Cougars. So giving the offense a few extra possessions might be crucial. Last season, WSU forced an average of two turnovers a game. It needs at least one more today.
3 When these two teams met in the opener of the Paul Wulff era two years ago – a 39-13 OSU win in Seattle – special-teams breakdowns cost the Cougars at least 17 points. One problem WSU had to deal with in the previous game was an injury to punter Reid Forrest. He’s healthy this year and should be a weapon today. The Cowboys have a well-earned reputation of excelling in this area of the game, though this season’s returners – most notably freshman punt returner Justin Gilbert and junior kickoff return man Johnny Thomas – will be new. Washington State counters with a new scheme under first year special-teams coach Dave Ungerer. The scheme is designed to give the cover team more time to get downfield. You may notice a difference in kickoff returns today as the NCAA banned all wedge blocking – a string of blockers in front of the returner – this season after limiting the practice to two players last year.
4 One of the reasons WSU only averaged 2.4 yards a carry last season was its quarterbacks were sacked 53 times, resulting in 318 negative yards charged to the running game. Take the sacks out of the equation, and the Cougars averaged 4.73 yards a carry, which is more than respectable. But unless Washington State’s offensive line can do just that, take sacks out of the equation, the offense won’t move the ball any better this season. Jeff Tuel has a strong and accurate arm. There is a stable of athletic receivers. The running backs are a threat out of the backfield. But time to throw is crucial if the offense is to improve on last year’s total of 16 touchdowns.