Colorado State takes on Washington in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday afternoon, so to get to know the Cougars we reached out to CougCenter to get a good look at the program leading into this game. Also, make sure to check out their bowl game coverage, too.
Q: This is Mike Leach's second year at Washington State, is he right on track or ahead of schedule by getting to a bowl game?
A: If you had asked me that question before the start of last season, I'd have said right on track - or maybe even a little behind. When Leach was hired, we believed that the team was on the cusp of bowl eligibility, given that Paul Wulff's final season produced four wins without its starting quarterback for virtually the entire slate. The thought was that Leach was just what we needed to get the program over the top. A bowl appearance last year was assumed - something like the New Mexico Bowl - and I think many we were on a trajectory for something better than that this season.
Of course, last season was a complete and total disaster; poor efforts were routine (everyone remembers Leach saying his players had a "zombie-like ... empty-corpse quality" after the blowout loss to Utah), discontent littered the roster (the team's best player, Marquess Wilson, quit mid-season), and only a dramatic come-from-behind win over Washington in the Apple Cup for the team's third victory saved the season from being looked at as an utter failure.
Fans realized that the program probably wasn't as close to getting over the hump as it seemed, and that tempered expectations coming into this year - even the athletic director warned fans that this might be another rebuilding season. Most reasonable fans figured a four- or five-win season was in store. Given that context, we are ecstatic that these guys somehow coaxed six wins out of one of the most difficult schedules in the country and probably would say that the program is now a bit ahead of schedule.
Q: You guys did an excellent series of breaking down Mike Leach's Air Raid offense this past offseason, but can you provide the shortened version of what he is doing at Washington State?
A: It's tough to condense the X's and O's too much, but it's not terribly difficult to distill what the Air Raid is all about, philosophically: Make the defense honestly defend all parts of the field up to about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. That means the Cougs are going to spread you out with four-wide formations on virtually every play and throw it about 70 percent of the time, using route concepts that exploit space and create confusion by forcing the defense to make difficult coverage decisions in real time. It seems odd to most that a team can throw it that much and be successful, but it helps to consider many of the throws as long handoffs.
2013 New Mexico Bowl coverage
2013 New Mexico Bowl coverage
Last year, teams were able to stymie the offense by dropping seven and eight into coverage on every play, but the Cougs have proven they'll run the ball a bit against favorable fronts that they feel like they can block when they're hat-on-hat. I would guess that CSU would be one of those teams, so if the Rams give looks that they are obviously dropping six or more into coverage responsibilities, expect WSU to take advantage by running the ball. Disguising pre-snap intentions for coverage is key for defenses so as to bait Connor Halliday into calling a play - and the QB in the Air Raid does, indeed, call his own plays at the line from the formation that's sent in by Leach - that the defense is prepared for. Athletic teams such as USC, Stanford and Oregon had a lot of success that way against WSU, but it's obviously questionable whether CSU can do that.
Q: Colorado State is good at getting to the quarterback and stopping runs behind the scrimmage -- not that the latter will be much of a concern -- how good is the offensive line preventing sacks, or is it more of Connor Holliday getting rid of the ball quickly?
A: Much improved. The Cougar offensive line was one of the worst units in the country for about half a decade; from 2008-2012, WSU gave up sacks on about out of every 10 dropbacks by the quarterback. This year, that number is down to about one out of every 25. It's a huge improvement that has made a big difference in the effectiveness of the offense - not just from a lost yardage perspective, but also in Halliday being more comfortable in the pocket - and the protection has gotten better as the season has gone on. (Halliday also has gotten better at getting rid of the ball quickly in the face of stiff pressure.)
Nowhere what that more evident than when the offensive line kept Utah, the leader nationally in sacks, from bringing Halliday down even once. That's not to say CSU will have no success at all in getting to Halliday; Shaquil Barrett obviously is a special player and could win a handful of individual battles. But the offensive line is no longer a revolving door and CSU probably will have some trouble generating heat on Halliday.
Q: Kapri Bibbs has had a great season running the ball for Colorado State, so how well does the Washington State defense do in stopping the running game?
A: This is the strength of the WSU defense. The line is stout with Ioane Gauta, Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper all disruptive forces. They've more than held their own against good rushing attacks, limiting guys such as Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Auburn's Tre Mason. That said, Bishop Sankey just had a monster day in the Apple Cup, putting up more than 200 yards on 34 carries, and Bibbs looks very similar, style-wise, to Sankey. However, Sankey did a lot of his damage late as the defense wore down, thanks to the offense's ineffectiveness against the Huskies in the second half. Do the Rams have the horses up front to lean on the Cougars in that way? I'm not sure.
Q: Who are some players who Colorado State should know?
We've covered some, but here are a couple of others. A big one to know is safety Deone Bucannon, a first-team AP All-American. While he's solid in coverage (tied for the team lead with five interceptions), where he really excels is in run support. He's fast and strong and loves to hit. (Feel free to watch all of this, on repeat:)
Expect him to set his sights on Bibbs early and often, given both his style of play and the fact that this is his final game. He's been through the valley with this program and has come out the other side, and I expect him to want to go out with a bang.
We could highlight most of the receivers, but I'll focus on the three guys who get the bulk of the snaps at the two outside receiver spots: Vince Mayle, Gabe Marks and Dom Williams. All three have game-breaking ability. Mayle is a junior college transfer who got better and better as the year went on; he's big and fast and physical and has proven himself to be a load against most corners - even taller ones, like the ones CSU has. Marks was Halliday's top target; he's smaller but has great hands and is unafraid to go get the ball. And Williams is long and lanky and will blow by pretty much anyone who doesn't get a hand on him. It was his run after the catch on a screen, in which he slipped a couple of tackles, that set WSU up to defeat USC.
Q; How do you think the game will play out?
It's so tough to say when it comes to bowl games - they're obviously notorious unpredictable. I tend to think WSU is a bit of a matchup nightmare for CSU: The Rams' offensive strength plays into the Cougars' defensive strength, while the Cougars' offensive strength plays right into the Rams' defensive weakness. If I were going only off of that, I'd say WSU probably wins comfortably. But Jim McElwain is a smart dude, and I'm sure he'll have some things cooked up to try and get an advantage. I'd guess that the game is close through a half with WSU pulling away for a double-digit victory down the stretch.