1. What are the keys to the game this week? Who are the Cougars' primary playmakers, and what should we expect?
Michael Preston: You already know about Luke Falk and Gabe Marks in all likelihood so I'll go with James BOOBIE Williams. We'd heard a lot of hype about the kid from Thursday Night Football practices last season and boy, has he delivered. He's fast, elusive, physical, all the attributes you want in a really good running back that can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Defensively, I'll go with Shalom Luani. He moved down to Nickel this season from safety and has been a revelation for the Cougs close to the line.
Britton Ransford: Control the clock and get after the quarterback. WSU is No. 10 in the country in time of possession, holding onto the ball over 33 minutes per game. That can be directly attributed to their success on third down, which they convert nearly 49 percent of the time -- that's good for No. 12 in the country and tops in the Pac-12.
We're accustomed to big, explosive plays in this matchup, but Luke Falk and the WSU offense have been a little shy to throw the ball deep, instead leaning on their much-improved running game led by Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and BOOBIE Williams to move the sticks methodically. If WSU breaks off a bunch of big plays, it'll be the result of missed tackles or blown coverage, as they'll continually eat up the Cal defense underneath, as you guys are well-aware.
In their 69-7 win over Arizona last week, WSU had a ton of success getting after the quarterback, piling up 10 tackles-for-loss, including five sacks. Hercules Mata'afa will get most of the attention, and deservedly so, but keep an eye out for Nnamdi Oguayo, who picked up his first three career sacks last week.
Jeff Nusser: A big key for me this week is WSU's capacity to limit Cal's big plays. The Cougs have had the good fortune of facing a lot of not very good quarterbacks recently, and it's allowed them to be a bit more attack minded up front than they might otherwise have been. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has placed a premium on not allowing explosives, so I anticipate we'll see a shift back to what WSU has used to great success over the past two seasons: Playing a little soft in the back end to force the quarterback to make a lot of completions without turning the ball over.
Kyle Sherwood: Maybe not fake any punts that get returned for touchdowns or miss field goals inside the five as the clock expires. If the Cougs can put that together, I'm gravy.
2. Any predictions for how this week will go?
Preston: WSU's offense has been on an absolute tear against the bottom of the barrel defensive teams in the conference and Cal might be the one all the way at the bottom. I have no worry about the offense's ability to score but rather the defense's ability to stop Davis Webb. I think the Cougs do enough though, so call it 48-28.
Ransford: While the Cougars have won 7 consecutive games, it's been a weird, back-and-forth stretch where they've looked unbeatable at times and also extremely vulnerable. However, this team just finds ways to win, and they're getting contributions from all three phases to do so. Coming off their most complete game of the season, I expect WSU to win handily against an overmatched Cal defense that just had their doors blown off by the only offense in the conference ahead of the Cougs. After a close, back-and-forth first half, I think the WSU defense gets a few takeaways to lead WSU to a 47-24 win.
Nusser: I think it'll be one of those games where it feels like the Cougs are controlling the contest while holding Cal at arm's length. The Golden Bears are going to score points, which will make it a game that still looks like it might be in doubt into the fourth quarter. But ultimately, I don't think Cal can quite keep up. Let's go 45-38, WSU.
Sherwood: I'd say WSU wins this running away but there's some sort of monkey's paw curse around the Cal game every year. I'm guessing 83-82 Cougs.
3. Why does Washington State seem to always drop a game against an FCS school before tearing through the Pac-12?
Preston: Didn't used to! Sucks now! This year, I don't think it was a matter of them not taking an opponent seriously. Eastern gave them a run for their money in 2012, has beaten Oregon State, and won a national championship not so long ago. Not really an excuse (an FCS team is an FCS team is an FCS team and you SHOULD beat them) but one we could at least see coming.
Portland State last year? I got nothing. The weather was awful, the Cougs couldn't do a dang thing through the air and Portland State is not EWU in terms of success. Hell, bad Paul Wulff teams had blown their doors off. Others will have better explanations, I'm just still mad about my bar tab from that game.
Ransford: WSU was really good against FCS teams when they were really bad! I mean, they clearly have the talent to beat these little schools and I hate the "well, Portland State was good and Eastern is really good!" narrative, because they're *not really good* when you're playing at the FBS level. It just comes down to not focusing, then butt puckering, then, "oh, crap, we're going to lose." Then, they get mad or whatever and play well against good teams. I don't even know. Go Montana State, though, if it results in 9-10 wins every year.
Nusser: For whatever reason, it takes these guys a couple of games to figure their stuff out. All I can do now is laugh and shrug.
Sherwood: 0-1 is who we are. This year is the first year we've stopped fighting it.
4. When should we expect College Gameday in Pullman?
Preston: Whenever the Cubs win their next World Series.
Nusser: I've made peace with the fact that it's probably never going to actually happen.
Sherwood: There's more hype to be made by pretending they're finally going to come than than for actually showing up. If they did, we'd be the dog who caught the car. What do we do now?
5. Mike Leach is an example of an Air Raid coach who also successfully fields a good defense. As a school working on the latter, what's your secret?
Preston: Hiring a young, hungry secondary coach from the SEC who has zero experience as a defensive coordinator in a season when you almost certainly had to finish with a winning record ... apparently.
Ransford: Basically what Preston said. The hire wasn't a popular one when it was announced, and certainly not so a few games into last season, but it took a little for everyone to buy in on the defensive side. Grinch has an infectious, intense coaching style that reverberates throughout the entire depth chart. Gabe Marks even mentioned this year that, while he's never in the same huddle, Grinch's demeanor on the field elevates his level of play every day. But yeah, I like the unconventional, inexperienced route Leach went instead of hiring another retread. He struck gold.
Nusser: While I think Grinch is a real bright guy and does a nice job of mixing things up enough to keep opposing offenses off balance, I think his success is actually fairly simple to explain. When you're maybe not quite as big and athletic as the teams you're playing, what do you do? Tailor the scheme to those guys: Tell them to keep everything in front of them, be sure in their tackling, and go the extra mile for any chance possible to take the ball away. You're still going to give up points, but you also hopefully are trading touchdowns for field goals while your offense does the opposite -- or, even better, ending drives deep in your own territory without giving up any points at all.
Sherwood: Find a Shalom Luani. I'm not sure the Coug defense would be much better than Cal without him.
6. What's your favourite piece of Mike Leach advice?
Preston: "Well, yanno this one time I was up in, uh, Alaska with some pals, uh, ***COUGH***, yanno, tooling around the Chugach looking for some bears to hunt and, uh, we had just spent 4 days in a cabin icehole ***COUGH*** fishing ... "
/tiny mice from Babe voice: "THREE WEEKS LATER"
"Anyway, that's why you shouldn't put money in T-notes."
Ransford: Not so much advice, but this is a solid quote from his Texas Tech days on officials, because Pac-12 and whatnot: "It's a little like breakfast; you eat ham and eggs. As coaches and players, we're like the ham. You see, the chicken's involved but the pig's committed. We're like the pig, they're like the chicken. They're involved, but everything we have rides on this." Also, #NeverPunt.
Nusser: I think his dating advice is pretty solid if you want to figure out pretty quickly if someone is a good match.
Who do you want to punch in the face?
Preston: Husky fans who think we should root for them because they root for us when we play anyone but them.
Ransford: Jim Mora. He's kinda douchey.
Nusser: I'll just go ahead and offer up another vote for each of those.
Sherwood: People who think a hot dog is a sandwich.