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WSU coaches hope for evenly matched Crimson, Gray squads

WSU head coach Mike Leach will be watching for a competitive Crimson and Gray game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU head coach Mike Leach will be watching for a competitive Crimson and Gray game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Throughout “Spokane Week” the Washington State Cougars have cultivated two hordes of partisans that passionately rooted for their teams, despite not knowing who composed them.

The fans of Team Crimson and Team Gray drew lines of demarcation, traded barbs on social media and competed for prizes, all while awaiting the announcement of the respective rosters for WSU’s Crimson and Gray game, played on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Albi Stadium.

Once the rosters were released Thursday evening, the supporters of Crimson and the fans of Gray argued over who had the more stacked roster. That occurred even though the WSU coaches meticulously ensured the squads were as evenly matched as possible.

The coaches eschewed a draft, choosing instead to put together two teams of first-team players intermingled with second-team players. The left side of the offensive line will stay together, as will the right side, but because of depth issues all the offensive linemen will be available to both teams.

So will running back James Williams. Third-string quarterback Tyler Hilinski will play one half with Crimson, the other with Gray.

“What’s good about it is it makes it real competitive,” Mike Leach said. “The negative is that at times it can be sloppy because there are guys playing next to each other that they aren’t use to playing next to.”

The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Network. Typically a few thousand fans attend, making this the first chance for most WSU fans to see the team in action since its Sun Bowl victory in late December.

The new left side of the offensive line, Williams, and freshmen contributors such as wide receiver Isaiah Johnson and safety Jalen Thompson provide intrigue for the fans, even if the game itself can be a little milquetoast.

Leach said he won’t hide anything on offense, given the decades of tape on his Air Raid offense readily available to opposing coaches. But with so many underclassmen playing, the playbook shrinks somewhat. On defense, the Cougars won’t show much.

“It’s probably the least of the scrimmages, and I don’t mean there’s no value in it, but we’ll be as vanilla as we can possibly be, for a number of reasons,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “We won’t blitz, we won’t stunt up front, there’s no movement. Where we line up is where we’ll be at the snap, which is not really our M.O. defensively.”

This year’s spring practices have been marked by increased energy and confidence from the Cougars, who are coming off a nine-win season and have added some intense assistant coaches to the staff.

To guard against a spring game letdown, Leach schedules one additional practice on Tuesday. That’s a lesson he learned his first year at Texas Tech, when he had no recourse after some “distracted work” in the Red Raiders’ spring game. The extra practice also allows the players and coaches to watch film of the spring game.

There is no added incentive for the winners. While other programs treat the winning team to dinner, the most the Cougars have done is given a T-shirt to the victorious squad, but it doesn’t sound like they will do that this year.

But with so many fans having already chose a side, both Crimson and Gray should have plenty to play for.

“At the end of the day we’re all on the same team,” linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. “We’ve all been hitting each other for the past four weeks, so we’re ready to knock it out and get after it.”

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