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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: Final thoughts on Jimmy Lake, personnel decisions on the defensive line and which Husky could claim Pac-12 OPOW?

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 28, 2019

PULLMAN – Between preparing your Thanksgiving feasts and calming your Apple Cup nerve – both time-consuming activities this week every year – a handful of you still took the time to tweet in, or E-mail in, questions for our final regular season edition of the Washington State mailbag.

For that, I’m thankful.

UW’s defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake talks as if he is the only one in the country who has developed a defensive scheme that truly shuts down Mike Leach’s air raid offense. No one else makes that claim. Is he right or just full of bravado, a big ego and trying to sell himself for a head coaching job?

– Stuart O.

Jimmy Lake’s mind is an interesting place and it’s a place I won’t dare try to enter.

Is he right?

In 2015: “They try to make it basketball on grass, kind of throwing the ball around like it’s 7-on-7. And that’s not what football is. Football is hard-nosed, tough-nosed. … I’m sure on Saturday morning, they felt who was the more physical team.”

Lake isn’t the first person to make the analogy between “basketball on grass” and the Air Raid, but he’s been the only one – as far as I know – to publicly scrutinize the Cougars for their physicality. Perhaps they aren’t as physical as the Huskies, the Utes or a few of the Stanford teams WSU has seen over the years, but I don’t agree that physicality is directly related to a team’s style of play. Max Borghi is pretty physical. Travell Harris is pretty physical. Andre Dillard and Cole Madison were never lacking in physicality.

In 2016: “anytime an offense, when we know they’re going to throw the ball 60 times, it really makes game-planning easy.”

When you have the right personnel, sure. Credit to the Huskies, they’ve picked the PNW clean of top defensive prospects over the years, and they’re well-coached. Of course, every team in the conference knows what Mike Leach and the Cougars want to do on offense, and how many have been able to prevent it?

In 2017: “Next year maybe he’ll throw a little curveball, but it makes it very easy when you know what you’re going to get. … But knowing what I read about the head football coach here, he does things a little bit different way.”

Leach won’t overhaul his offensive strategy for one game, regardless of said game’s importance, and if you have a handle on the Air Raid I supposed it would make things easy. Again, nine other defensive coordinators – all but Lake and Cal’s Tim DeRuyter – don’t.

Chris Petersen indicated Monday in his press conference he doesn’t condone Lake’s comments and would rather the Huskies speak with their play. So, if the Huskies snatch a seventh straight win, I’d imagine Lake will take a more mild approach to postgame interviews this time.

Lamonte McDougle did not play last week against OSU. Is it again a fitness problem? Also, have not seen Zeus Echevarria since he got pancaked in the first game against NM State. Is he also out?

– Phillip P.

McDougle’s fitness may be a problem. At 6-feet, he’s the shortest defensive lineman on this roster, but at 291 pounds he’s also the heaviest. But, if my memory serves me right, that hasn’t been something either defensive coordinator or defensive line coach Jeff Phelps has discussed this season.

Dallas Hobbs emerged as WSU’s top nose tackle early in Pac-12 play and Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei still had the edge on McDougle. Generally, the defensive line rotations cycle through two players at each of three positions and while a third might come in for a spell, it’s hard to lock down field time if you aren’t the first or second player on the depth chart.

With a low center of gravity, McDougle’s hard to shove to the ground, but at his height he can’t fill the passing lanes that a 6-foot-6 Hobbs or a 6-foot-3 Aiolupotea-Pei can. And if McDougle isn’t stuffing running lanes, he becomes almost unplayable. I’d bet McDougle does drop between 10-20 pounds in the offseason and given a few more months to practice in WSU’s scheme, I’d guess he’s Hobbs’ main backup next season, if not pushing him for the No. 1 nose tackle job.

Echevarria’s played in two games thit season – NMSU and UNC – but you’re right in that he hasn’t been part of the mix since the early stages of the nonconference schedule. I don’t have any knowledge of an injury, but would suspect coaches haven’t seen enough of Echevarria to offer him an expanded role, especially with a handful of more experience manning the tackle and nose tackle positions.

Any word on Harris and if he plays Friday? Missed the last quarter and half last Saturday. Does (Calvin) Jackson have one more game or has he used his 4 games?

– Greg N.

I’d be optimistic – cautiously optimistic, rather – about Harris’ chances of playing in the Apple Cup. You’re right, he didn’t finish the Oregon State game with an undisclosed injury, but it didn’t appear too severe and I’m guessing he practiced with the Cougars this week, though those are closed so I can’t confim that one way or the other.

The Cougars should be comfortable with what they have at slot receiver and if Harris couldn’t go, there wouldn’t be a significant drop-off with Renard Bell manning the “H” and Brandon Arconado the “Y.” But, inconsistent as WSU’s offense has been in this series the last six years, it would be helpful to have Harris’ abilities on special teams. Perhaps breaking open a kick or punt return could give the Cougars a spark in a game where they’ve usually lacked one.

Jackson Jr. has exhausted his four games (New Mexico State, Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon State), so we’ll see Rodrick Fisher and Tay Martin split reps at “X” in the Apple Cup and bowl game.

Which UW offensive player will get POW honors? Eason? Newton? Lots of possibilities with this defense.

– Jon Y.

The two you brought up would be the two I’d select. Or, at least two of the three, because I’d be hard-pressed to omit Salvon Ahmed, who can be the most explosive player in the conference when he’s on his game – and as you allude to, that’s not hard to do against this WSU team.

At the rate the Cougars are giving up explosive plays, Ahmed may be especially dangerous. He hasn’t been the 20 carry-per-game back some expected he’d evolve into when Myles Gaskin left, and some of that’s had to do with the surprise emergence of Newton and Sean McGrew, but Ahmed’s still on the cusp of a 1,000 yard season and I’ll be he gets there Friday, needing just 85 yards in the Apple Cup.

Ahmed’s my top choice, but the state of the Cougars’ defensive secondary also makes me want to lean toward Eason. No, the UW junior hasn’t been consistent, but neither were Devon Modster or Dorian Thopson-Robinson before they played WSU – and Eason has much more upside than both. Hunter Bryant and Aaron Fuller are both strong pass-catchers, but the Huskies don’t have the same fleet of playmakers they’ve had in the past.

Final answer: Ahmed. But what makes this game fun is how unpredictable it is. So, stay tuned.

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