PROVO, Utah – If you’re wondering what to expect out of the Washington State football team when it opens its season against Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, this evening, you’re not alone.
Mike Leach is right there with you.
“I feel good about our progress, but we haven’t played a game and the evaluation that you get from especially your first three games is really critical as far as shaping the team and where you go from there,” WSU’s coach said earlier this week. “So I’m curious myself.”
There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding every college football team this time of year. Nobody has played a game yet. Personnel have changed from the last time anybody put anything on film. And even top-ranked teams have concerns to address.
But for a team like WSU – which hired a new coach, a new staff of assistants and implemented major changes on both sides of the ball in the last nine months – only so much can be learned by watching practice.
“This is a really strange feeling for me, because where I’ve been for the last six years, I kind of knew what we were going to get,” said linebackers coach Jeff Choate, who coached special teams at national power Boise State the past six seasons. “I kind of knew the type of competitors we had in our program and the type of expectations they were holding themselves to, and here, you just don’t know in a lot of ways.”
In a lot of ways, this game could tell more about WSU’s fortunes than if the schedule flip-flopped the BYU game with the Cougars’ Sept. 8 home opener against Eastern Washington.
It’s not an ideal way to open a new coaching regime, heading on the road to face a team that won 10 games last season and returns 14 starters, including a senior quarterback.
But it’s a challenge somewhere between daunting and manageable. BYU opened as a 12.5-point favorite in Las Vegas, likely a reflection of concerns along WSU’s defensive front – it’s not known whether redshirt freshman defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, seen in a walking boot recently, will be available – coupled with BYU’s past success and home-field advantage.
A win would set WSU up for the distinct possibility of a 4-0 start, with games against EWU, UNLV and Colorado to follow. A loss wouldn’t be a death knell, necessarily, but a poor showing on national television in Leach’s return to coaching would be at least somewhat deflating.
Not that the other Cougars have the Pullman bunch figured out.
“We don’t quite know what to expect,” BYU quarterback Riley Nelson said. “We’re trying to get a feel for their personnel as best we can, but we just have to go out and execute.”
If Leach’s past is any indication of how his offense will fare, the Cougars should at least be able to move the ball. Leach is 9-1 in season openers, including wins in his last seven.
The “Air Raid” offense was installed early in spring and has been ingrained via repetition since. Leach has said periodically that he feels his offense progressed ahead of schedule.
“I think that we’re pretty capable,” Leach said. “I think we’ve got a good cohesive staff that I think our teaching has been at a little higher level just for no other reason than I’ve been a head coach now.
“I think our players had a really dedicated offseason, worked incredibly hard. But the whole ‘Where are we at?’ I don’t know. I wish I could tell you.”