It's true that CougCenter loves Nickelback, but we love them anyway!
I've been in this blogging game since 2006. Really, 2002 or so, because I ran a site back during my college days, but that was brutish, nasty, and short. We created CGB in 2006 and it's almost 8 years at this point. I've seen Cal at its heights and its bottoms.
Last year was the nadir and I've seen the effect it has on blogging. It is much more difficult to get people interested in writing about the teams. It is more difficult to generate discussion. It is just more difficult in general.
Well, WSU has sucked with a capital OH DEAR GOD for like a solid 10 years at this point. They are just getting out of that zone recently. So, presumably, they've struggled with that for a long time. Having said that, the guys over at CougCenter have consistently put out great content year in and year out for this entire time. They've had to deal with a lot of apathy and they've done a great job overcoming that. I'm hopeful that this season will be the end of our bottomout and we'll be back to passionate discussion and blogging. I never want to be in the position that CougCenter has been in lo these many years.
So, when we talk to CougCenter, you need to pay attention. These guys are good at what they do and what they do is WSU football. We're talking to Jeff Nusser, Brian Anderson, and Mark Sandritter. Thanks, guys, for answering our questions! GO BEARS! BEAT THE COUGARS!
1. WSU is struggling below 0.500, but their three losses have been against a 4-1 Rutgers team, second-ranked Oregon, and the always-tricky Nevada. Are Cougs fans worried about being 2-3 or do they feel good about the losses?
BA: There's a lot of woulda-coulda-shoulda right now with the two non-conference losses. Cougs had an entirely different defense, in terms of personnel, on the field against Rutgers and the game against Nevada was just awful offensively. I think at this point most fans have just tossed the non-conference games aside, thinking there might be a way to find five - now four - more wins in conference play.
MS: I don't think anyone feels good about the two non-conference losses. Most see them as missed opportunities. However, the fanbase isn't currently lamenting the losses and is more optimistic because of the strong game against Oregon and the comeback against Utah. If WSU gets to five wins, the angst of losing to a Gary Nova led team will be back.
2. It feels like QB Connor Halliday has been playing for 13 years or so, but entering his fifth year, how has his game improved since last year? What are his shortcomings?
BA: Halliday's been able to work through his progressions a lot faster this year. He's struggled a tad with, not really the speed, but actually making it down to his third or fourth option. He had a tendency to force things a bit, leading to some pretty unacceptable turnover numbers, but he's really shored a lot of that up this season.
MS: He's a little more even through the games. Before when it went bad, it stayed bad and got worse. Now, a bad read or a bad throw isn't as much of a sign of things to come. He seems more settled this season and it's showing with better efficiency numbers.
JN: The most striking thing to me is how easy he makes it look to throw for 450 yards or so. I mean, at this point it's routine -- he has such command, it's surprising at this point when he makes a bad read or forces a throw. He still does that on occasion, but he's minimized those occurrences compared to years past.
3. Which Cougar receiver should the Bears be most worried about this Saturday?
MS: All of them? WSU typically rotates eight receivers each game with River Cracraft, Vince Mayle, Isiah Myers and Dom Williams at the top of the heap. Each is very capable of a big game and all four have produced big games this season. Cracraft and Myers are just steady, reliable targets and both are having big years. Williams is a big play threat on the outside and Cal fans know all about Mayle from last year.
BA: Really, it's pick your poison. Dom and Vince are probably the most panic-inducing, because they're the big play guys. Although, Bears fans are probably conditioned to watching two offenses in a home run derby by now.
JN: You're going to hate River Cracraft. He's Halliday's safety blanket when he needs to move the chains, and he'll probably do that enough on Saturday to have you cursing his amazing name by the end of the night.
4. The Wazzu defense is currently ranked 82nd nationally in yards allowed and 59th in passing yards allowed. Do the Cougs have the defense needed to shut down the Bear Raid?
BA: Hopefully. I think the front will pressure Cal a little more than Arizona and Colorado did, but they're extremely liable at the back end. Because of the youth in the secondary - a sophomore, two RS freshman and a true freshman - you never know how they'll turn up. They could just as easily break up a pass intended for Dres Anderson to win a game, as get smoked on a post for 60 yards to lose it. This game will be a little like Russian roulette.
JN: The pass rush also has been coming on of late. Ivan McLennan at defensive end and Kache Palacio at Buck linebacker have been getting after the quarterback quite a bit the last couple of weeks. The Cougs had seven sacks against Oregon, and a large part of Travis Wilson's sub-50 completion percentage on Saturday was attributable at least in part to the rush making him uncomfortable. That's going to have to part of whatever WSU can do to slow down Goff.
5. WSU is racking up lots of yardage, but it's not translating into points. What do you attribute this problem
BA: Finishing drives. Turnovers. Volume of drives / pass plays per game. The totals metrics will always look a little silly with this offense.
MS: The kicking game hasn't helped. They've missed three field goal attempts from 40 yards or closer. The return games have been lackluster leading to a lot of long fields and forcing the offense to pile up yards to score. Like Brian said, turnovers have limited things as well.
6. Needless to say, we all love Mike Leach. What has been your favorite Leach-ism or saying since he arrived at Pullman?
BA: I think the quirky ‘look at the funny Leach stuff' is more enjoyable for other people. You'll laugh at whatever joke, because he is a genuinely funny person, but it's not some big thing you're constantly excited about. None of it is really that big a deal until Keith Olbermann finds out he predicted the end of humanity via cell-phone. Picking out one though; going back to his first season, we had a tight end on the roster named Andrew Lintz. At that time we still had no idea what the offense would look like, I mean he brought in a Pistol running back coach, so everyone was real dialed-in to what was going on with spring practices. Lintz was getting run at Y. One day after practice he goes off about how great Lintz is with his hands, that he's real violent - like a bear rummaging through an overturned dumpster - just gobbles things up. Unstoppable. Great tight end. I think he played a handful of offensive snaps all year.
MS: I've heard every Leach story about five times by now. He just repeats the same things over and over. If you ask him which actor he'd want to play him in a movie, he'll say "I've had this question before" then go on to explain John Cusack is the answer because although he's never met him, some people say they look alike, Leach is a fan of his movies and thinks they have some of the same mannerisms. Ask him his favorite part of Thanksgiving and he'll go into a story about a blackberry pie his daughter makes and how the thing must cost a lot since blackberries are out of season in November. Book it, guaranteed answer next month.
JN: Gotta be any theoretical "who would win a fight between" question. Bears vs. sharks, three coaches enter only one can leave, that kind of stuff. His rambling reasoning is always off the wall and good for a chuckle. Unlike these other guys, I still get a kick out of it, especially when he's in a playful mood - because that means we're winning.
7. Wazzu held Oregon to only 93 yards but yielded an average of almost 200 rushing yards to each of the other teams. What went right against Oregon? What went wrong against everyone else?
MS: Limiting explosives. Oregon hit its big plays through the air. Others have found a big play on the ground. Some missed assignments or poor execution in some instances.
BA: The 3-4 is really geared to stop spread option teams, like an Arizona or an Oregon. They're able to pretty fluidly change the reads for a QB -- say, maybe stunting so that the defensive end isn't the read player on an option, the outside linebacker is (or safety, they crashed with Deone Bucannon last year). I think they (backers and DL) were able to get into their run fits against a weaker OL that had some injuries, and generate some real pressure on dropback and play-action stuff too.
8. How can Cal stop Mike Leach's most productive Air Raid attack to date at Wazzu?
BA: Get after Halliday. He hasn't quite proven he can handle teams that make him move in the pocket or knock him down every play. Utah and Oregon both settled to rush three and play eight in coverage. It used to be that playing man underneath with a couple safeties would disrupt the timing and limit open space of the offense, but these receivers have really improved at beating press-man coverage. We haven't really seen how much improved Halliday is with constant pressure, we have seen that he'll average 450 yards a game without it though.
MS: Dominate the receivers at the line of scrimmage. WSU's receivers haven't been great at beating press coverage. They've done better this year, but it's still an issue. If you can press them and throw them off their routes the timing of the offense gets out of whack and the Cougars struggle.
JN: These guys are just being kind. You're not going to stop it.
9. What will it take for Mike Leach to bring the Cougs to the level where they're challenging for Pac-12 titles?
BA: A run game. And I think they're getting really close with Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, their two RS Freshman backs, and there's a true freshman tearing up the scout team named Squally Canada that could be really productive next season too. There's all sorts of things we could mention defensively -- generating turnovers to offset picks -- but I think this team takes a major leap forward when the running game gets going for near 120 yards per game (low 20s in carries for five yards per attempt).
MS: Consistency. They've shown flashes at times -- like against Oregon -- but haven't been anywhere close to consistent in all three phases. When the offense plays well, the defense doesn't or there are special teams. The defense has a solid game and the offense can't get it going. They've only played a handful of complete games in the Leach era, getting those performances consistently is the next step.
JN: This already is a borderline Pac-12 championship worthy offense. The defense has farther to go. The young talent that is now playing -- the guys who were on the bench in losses to Rutgers and Nevada -- are making a big difference, but the unit isn't quite there yet. It could be there by next year, though, as there are only a couple of senior starters. The question will be whether the offense can maintain under a new QB.
10. Whom do you want to punch in the face?
MS: Pac-12 officials who don't know how to call pass interference.
BA: Kevin Hogan. And I'm not pandering. I watched that entire boring game, missing some of your shootout, because I wanted to see UW get torched. Hogan ruined that with his terribleness.
JN: Tom Holmoe. That will get us on your good side, right?