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Washington State @ California 2013: Q & A with CougCenter

As fiatlux so boldly proclaims, Washington State is the start of Season 2.0! This week, we're joined by Brian Anderson and Jeff Nusser of CougCenter. Brian and Jeff graciously answered ten of our hard-hitting questions on this week's must-win game. Thanks to Brian and Jeff - go say hi over at CougCenter; they're a friendly bunch!. As always, Go Bears!

Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach
Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach
Otto Greule Jr

1. Connor Halliday's week-to-week performances remain quite similar to first two career starts in 2011 (494 yards (13.7 ypa), 75% completions, 4 TDs; and 290 yards (6.0 ypa), 43.8% completions, 2 TDs-4 Ints). Is there any hope that he can consistently play at a high level, or have you come to accept that he is a wildly inconsistent player?

Brian Anderson: Connor's reduced the frequency of high risk decisions this year. I would say he's slowly removing inconsistency from his game but realize there's still going to be a couple of high risk / bad read / bad throw plays in the game from him. There's been significant progress over what he was able to do in the system with limited preseason reps last year, and I see no reason to think he's plateaued as a quarterback. A constant refrain has been "get one week better" and I think Connor will continue to do that, some of his best QB play of the season was against Stanford before the injury. Plus, there's always the blind hope that one day, for some random game, it'll all just click and the offense will take off.

Jeff Nusser: Unfortunately, I waver back and forth on this one. That's a little embarrassing to admit, because I try really hard to be even handed in my assessments of players, but there's just something about Halliday. I mean, when he screws up, it's epic, and it leads you wild swings of emotion that make you question if he's ever going to lead your team anywhere.

But in my more rational moments, I have to acknowledge that Halliday has made huge strides this year, despite the interceptions. He appears to be running through his reads more often, taking the conservative play more regularly when the throw isn't open downfield. He actually was throwing the ball well against Stanford before the play on which he was injured. The yards per attempt was fairly low, but a lot of that had to do with Stanford. His receivers also had a few key drops. When his mechanics are right - an indicator that he's throwing with confidence - he's very, very good. But when those break down, his decision making also typically breaks down, and he can be very, very bad.

I'm hopeful he can still get more consistent, but that's mostly because he's simply the best option right now.

2. Now that Halliday is questionable for Saturday's game, what can you tell us about backup QB Austin Apodaca?

Brian Anderson: The offense in general, and the game plan specifically will not look any different with Austin taking snaps. We haven't seen enough of Austin to really know what his specific strengths and weaknesses are, but we can make a few little observations; he has a live arm, good velocity and strength, and we've heard his accuracy is really impressive. Excellent mobility, he's an actual run threat (Connor is not), and can extend plays outside the pocket.

Jeff Nusser: Brian's answer pretty much sums it up. I will say that he settled in nicely against Stanford after a rough patch, and I'm surprisingly comfortable with the idea of the Cougs still having a chance to win even with Apodaca starting. I liked what I saw against the Cardinal. A lot.

3. Has the offensive line improved much since last season, or will Halliday/Apodaca be running from defenders all day?

Brian Anderson: The play of this year's offensive line is light years beyond what last year's offensive line could do on its best day. That doesn't mean their great, or even good, but I'd put them right at average...and that's a significant improvement.

Jeff Nusser: Huge improvement. Quite literally night and day. It's still not a great unit, but it's pretty adequate at this point - the Cougs have been able to run the ball a bit when they've wanted/needed to, and the quarterback has generally had more time to throw the ball. That said, there are members of the line who still struggle with more athletic rushers - right tackle Rico Forbes is massive, but stiff at times - and if Cal is athletic enough to win some one-on-one matchups (full disclosure: haven't watched the Golden Bears enough to know), they could get some pressure on the QB. But the stunts, twists and blitzes that caused them so many problems last year have been much less of an issue.

4. Does the Wazzu offense have any kind of home run threat or will they dink and dunk down field all day?

Brian Anderson: There are three plays with real home run potential; 4-verts, Y-cross, and wheel routes. These aren't really meant to be dink and dunk, but do still have checkdowns. Last year, Connor struggled with forcing targets to covered wide receivers rather than moving down his read progression. He's done a pretty decent job correcting that, although there's still a few decisions in each game he'd like back. He's getting through a progression faster, using the RB checkdowns more, and getting the ball out quickly. All three of those translate to a dink and dunk looking offense. Connor just needs to identify when to take his shots and be smartly-aggressive, not the panicky-aggressiveness we've seen when he tries to win the game on every throw. No, don't expect dinks and dunks all day, there should be a handful of explosive (+20yds) pass play attempts per game too. As for players, No. 80 Dom Williams (RSo.) has been a vertical target this season and No. 9 Gabe Marks is the best playmaker, but realistically it can be any one of the receivers.

Jeff Nusser: Brian's answer says it all, and I'll reiterate Dom Williams and Gabe Marks. Williams is a guy who can take the lid off a defense, while Marks can make people miss in the open field and pull away from defenders. While any receiver can theoretically make a big play, these two guys can take a mundane play and make it explosive, as Williams did when he took a screen 50 yards to set up the game winning field goal against USC.

Washington State Upsets USC 4th Quarter Finish | LIVE 9-7-13 (via NFL September 8)

5. How big of a role does this Cal game play in the Cougs' postseason hopes? Can Wazzu still have a successful season without making it to a bowl game?

Brian Anderson: Crucial. Schedule predictions are dicey, but the probability of three wins that don't include Cal is much lower than three wins with Cal. Most see @Cal, OSU, and Utah as the best opportunities for wins left on the schedule. Losing any one of those games means the Cougs need to pick up one (or more) from @Arizona, ASU, @Oregon, or @UW to get to six wins. I was thinking this was a 4-5 win team before the season and the USC win provided just enough "what if" to make me optimistic for a bowl, a lot of that "what if" will evaporate with a loss in Berkeley.

Jeff Nusser: Critical and yes. It is not, of course, impossible for WSU to make a bowl game without beating Cal, but the probability becomes much lower with a loss in this game. If they get this one, they need two of their final six, with three of those games at home: Oregon State, Utah, Arizona State. They really don't want to put themselves in a position where they need all three of those, or two of those and a win at Arizona. Still, if they don't make a bowl game, that's not really a failure - most people didn't see this as a bowl team to start the year, anyway.

6. Wazzu has not beat Cal since 2002, an 8 game losing streak? Does the fan base particularly care to beat Cal or was the victory over USC (first win since 2002) a much bigger deal?

Brian Anderson: I don't really think the majority of fans lump the two schools together like that, despite having pretty impressive losing streaks against both. They care to beat everybody, but being terrible for a long time makes a fanbase hyperfocus on their rival, so I'd say Cougs really only deeply care about beating UW right now. That's the only singular win that can "salvage" a season, in some's opinion. I wouldn't think people are satisfied with beating a struggling USC team. Cal is pretty important for most people's back-of-the-napkin bowl prediction math, and ending another losing streak to a California school would be nice.

Jeff Nusser: We want to beat Cal because we are starving for wins. That's really it. No extra animosity here, nor would there be the extra pleasure in a victory that there was in beating USC. The losing streak is just sort of incidental because DO YOU REALIZE HOW MANY TEAMS WE HAVE A LOSING STREAK AGAINST RIGHT NOW??? We'd be angry at everyone if that made us upset. And we're much more genial than that. Plus, on a personal level, Cal fans are my favorite in the conference.

7. Year two of the Mike Leach era is looking a whole lot more successful. How do you feel about Leach today versus the end of last season? Any advices to Cal fans who are anxious to see Sonny Dykes get more wins (despite a very tough schedule)?

Brian Anderson: Leach has been fairly honest about everything. We knew the attitude of the team wasn't what he wanted last year, and this year it's been a process of discovering what a Leach team looks/sounds like. And you can at least see the corner they're starting to turn. Cal is at an advantage athletically, their roster is in better shape than where WSU was last year (and probably this year too, honestly). Wins maybe a little difficult with a freshman QB and transitioning defense, but Cal fans can look to the offensive production at the beginning of the season and know that potential exists. Goff is pretty stellar, he'll do freshman things and make mistakes, be too aggressive and that sort of thing, but I'm not sure you could hand pick a better guy for Dykes to have starting off his tenure.

Jeff Nusser: It's clear that he's making a difference in the program. This is a much better team than a year ago, and that's not due to any particular talent infusion. It's basically the same guys, they've just gotten a lot better: Their skills have developed, their strength is better and their conditioning is top notch. I'd argue they're probably the best conditioned team in the conference. Remember those fake injuries by Northwestern? Not only will WSU not fake injuries, you won't even see them rotate defenders in all that much. To that end, I'd say: Be patient. Let Dykes do his thing, ride out the bumpy stuff in the first year. A lot of WSU players couldn't stomach Leach and his staff and their methods, and while I'm sure they all are fine gentlemen, the truth is that the proof is in the pudding and it sure looks like the program is better off for their departure. Dykes is an excellent coach. He'll get it fixed. Just maybe not right away.

8. Wazzu's defense held Auburn and USC passing to under 100 passing yards each. The Cal offense, of course, is pretty much all passing. How many yards will the Bears accrue against the Cougs D on Saturday?

Brian Anderson: A lot more than 100. Neither Auburn, nor USC tested the secondary deep all that often and when they did, they tried with a terrible effort from the quarterback position. While Hogan blew the top off of a WSU defense looking to stop the run, they should be a lot more prepared for the air attack against the Bears. I'm just not so sure that means they do a whole lot better. Keeping Cal at or under 250 yards passing would be a decent game by the secondary, under 200 yards and I think they would've played a pretty great game (for them). Pressure by the defensive line is going to play a major role in that too.

Jeff Nusser: Well over 300, I'm sure. The Cougars' secondary is suspect, having gotten lit up by Stanford. However, we really haven't really seen them play against a pass-first team. That matters because against the Cardinal, it was clear that some of the big plays came about from peeking in the backfield. We'll find out on Saturday if this team actually can cover when it needs to. I'm pretty curious, actually.

9. Prediction for the game?

Brian Anderson: 9. The spread's even with an O/U of 66. I have no idea how this WSU team will respond to a shilacking (or Cal for that matter), so I'll be boring and stick close to the Vegas line; WSU 34 - 31 Cal. I think this should be a close game, whether the offenses show up to put points on the board or not.

Jeff Nusser: I think it's a toss up, which means of course I'm going with WSU. Let's say 45-42.

10. WHOM do you want to punch in the face?

Brian Anderson: Can I just say Congress? Like all of them, or is that too many face punches? Well, Greg Schiano is my next choice if that's not allowed.

Jeff Nusser: You ask me this every time, and every time I really have to think about it because I don't really think too much about punching people in the face. I'll probably punch myself in the face if I ever said I was excited to visit Cleveland. ( How about that?