PULLMAN – In five weeks, the nation’s fourth-ranked college football team will be in town. Almighty USC will come with Sam Darnold and an army of players who’ve headlined preseason All-American lists and almost certainly will appear on all of the postseason ones, too.
Somehow, the prospect of that visit, from the preseason Pac-12 favorite, isn’t making Washington State fans as queasy as this first one, from a minnow of the FCS ranks – a team has 23 fewer scholarships, not nearly the same financial resources and a roster of players who didn’t do so much as open a single envelope from an FBS program during their recruitment.
Montana State went 2-6 in the Big Sky Conference last season. A grand total of 26 underclassmen left the Bobcats this offseason. The Cougars did recruit their quarterback a few years ago, but not because they wanted his arm. They thought he’d be a good addition to the defense.
All of that considered, this seems like a colossal challenge for WSU, which enters the 2017 season ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll and returns 18 starters from last season, including the NCAA’s active leading passer, senior quarterback Luke Falk.
“It’s not a great matchup for us, quite honestly,” second-year Montana State coach and former WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate said earlier in the week. “In terms of the strength of their team and the strength of ours.”
Simply put, one team has vastly more strengths than the other. But that doesn’t always matter, as history has repeatedly proven.
The Cougars are aiming to finish Saturday night 1-0. That’s the narrative you’ll hear from any coach, player or WSU staffer when you ask about the 7:30 p.m. season opener at Martin Stadium. Then there’s the other narrative – the one that you’ll overhear disgruntled fans discussing at the local watering hole, or debating on a message board.
The Cougars are 0-2 in their last two tries against the FCS. The scab left from a 24-17 loss to Portland State two years ago might have healed a little better had WSU taken care of business against its next foe from the Big Sky Conference. But the Cougars were bitten again, by Eastern Washington, in a 45-42 loss to open the 2016 season.
WSU’s skein against lesser opponents has been one of the stranger trends in college football the last two seasons. But it may not be as strange as this one: in his five seasons as the Cougars’ coach, Mike Leach has won 29 times, but never in the first game of the year.
Does that irritate him?
“No,” Leach said. “You just worry about preparation.
In some ways, preparing for Choate’s Bobcats will feel like preparing for Bruce Barnum’s Vikings, or Beau Baldwin’s Eagles. Portland State and Eastern Washington both started a dual-threat quarterback when they came to Pullman, and so will Choate.
Chris Murray is the reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year and comes off a season that saw him rush for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns after swiping the starting job from Tyler Bruggman, a former WSU quarterback who left MSU in the offseason for Texas A&M.
Had things played out differently, Bruggman and Murray could’ve actually been at WSU together. Murray’s athleticism caught the eyes of Leach and his coaches when the Bobcat signal-caller was playing at Lawndale High in Inglewood, California. The Cougars weren’t as keen on bringing him in as a quarterback, but his quickness could’ve been a real coup for WSU on defense.
“Anytime we see an elite athlete, which he is, and selfishly, you’re talking to a defensive guy – can he do something for us defensively?,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind as I watch him on film. Athletically, he certainly fits the mold and I wish we would’ve taken him … so you wouldn’t have to play against him.”
Murray isn’t as accurate or adept with his right arm as the other Big Sky quarterbacks who’ve torched the Cougars. He’s fine-tuned some things, but still, Murray comes off a season that saw him complete just 46 percent of his passes. He threw six touchdowns, but also six interceptions.
That should settle some nerves of anxious WSU fans. If not, maybe this will.
“I would anticipate them making sure that doesn’t happen again,” Choate said of the possibility that the Cougars once again struggling to beat an inferior opponent, such as his own. “… I think that the fact that they struggled in openers is irrelevant in this opener and that was in the past and this is now.”