PULLMAN – The duration of Washington State’s season opener against Wyoming in Laramie last week was clocked at 3 hours, 46 minutes, which is somewhat surprising when you take into account the Cowboys’ dedication to running the football.
WSU’s next opponent is known to deploy the other method of moving an offense – the one the Cougars swear to – so if the Wyoming game felt like an eternity, it was probably only an appetizer.
It may not match the mind-numbing passing display put up by Cal and WSU in 2014 – a game in which Connor Halliday and Jared Goff combined to sling it 123 times – but Saturday’s nonconference matchup between the Cougars (1-0) and San Jose State Spartans (0-1) at 8 p.m. in Pullman will probably be an aerial show in its own right.
WSU and SJSU both rank inside the top 10 nationally in pass attempts, having each thrown the ball more than 50 times in their season openers. But betting services assume the Cougars will make more of their passing attempts count and have thus made them a 34-point favorite over the Spartans.
No other FBS opponent has come to Pullman a bigger underdog in seven years under Mike Leach, according to Odds Shark’s database. Players may not be aware of that particular stat, but it isn’t news to them that they’re overwhelming favorites, and a coach can never be sure how something like that impacts a team the week leading up to the game.
“Well, you always wonder,” Leach said Tuesday on a Pac-12 teleconference. “The biggest thing is, the most important thing for any team no matter who you play is to worry about yourself and just try to get better. We need to get a week better this week.”
Some might have called the Cougars complacent before they were upset by Portland State in 2015, and Eastern Washington in 2016 – and that probably did play at least a slight role – but Leach also suggests, “We weren’t that good back then, but we ended up rallying and having pretty good seasons.”
The WSU coach won’t defer to calling SJSU a bad football team, though the Spartans did suffer a bad loss in their opener, losing 44-38 to FCS UC Davis – a team picked to finish last in the Big Sky Conference.
Instead, Leach said the Spartans are, “like every team right now, trying to find their identity,” and it’s especially accurate for a team still searching for a permanent solution at quarterback. Montel Aaron was SJSU’s most productive, most efficient passer in the opener, but it wasn’t until the Spartans exhausted their first two options that they resorted to the redshirt sophomore.
SJSU’s top offensive strength could be its receiving corps. Spartans coach Brent Brennan was the wide receivers coach at Oregon State during the Sean Mannion era and had a hand in developing Brandin Cooks, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner.
“They have a good scheme of offense and all that stuff,” Leach said. “They spread it out and throw it around and have some gadgets up their sleeve, so they’re pretty good.”
Practicing against Leach’s Air Raid offense, WSU’s defensive backs have already had thousands of footballs fired their way during preseason camp, which clearly provides a level of comfort when you’re being tested by a high-volume passing offense.
“(We) practice against good people and if you don’t practice well, then you’ll have bad practices,” Cougars defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “There’s no doubt the passing game helps, going against our offense.”
It may not be totally familiar, though. The Spartans, unlike the Cougars, use a tight end and they go to him plenty. Senior Josh Oliver led SJSU in catches against UC Davis, reeling in eight passes for 86 yards, and he was the team’s second-leading receiver last year with 35.
That’s a wrinkle WSU’s defense isn’t used to.
“He’s on the ball, off the ball, so they do a good job of moving around the tight end,” Claeys said. “That’s something we haven’t had a lot of work against.”
The Spartans are equally wary of WSU’s talented core of cornerbacks and safeties. Wyoming completed just 8 of 20 passes in last week’s opener against strong coverage from Darrien Molton, Marcus Strong, Sean Harper Jr., Jalen Thompson and Hunter Dale.
“I think they’ve got four NFL players there,” Brennan said. “Maybe five if you include the nickel. I know Alex Grinch left a year ago, but they have just continued to upgrade the talent on the defensive side and play at a really high level and it’s a good complement to what they do offensively.”
‘Misi’ missing no longer
Defensive lineman Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei will be available for the game after missing the season opener while the NCAA was processing his paperwork, Leach told Matt Chazanow on Thursday evening on the coaches’ radio show.
“He’s just another big body, runs his feet well and adds a little bit of depth,” Claeys said of the junior college transfer.