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Five Burning Questions: Washington State

Jeff Nusser of pulls no punches in answering five questions about the incoming Washington State Cougars.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach and his Cougars enter Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday to take on Utah, with both teams seeking their first Pac-12 victory.
Washington State head coach Mike Leach and his Cougars enter Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday to take on Utah, with both teams seeking their first Pac-12 victory.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports
Washington State is a bit of a mystery. They have a potent offense and an underrated defense. They have a golden-armed quarterback putting up XBox-like numbers, and yet the team is just 1-3 entering Saturday's Pac-12 showdown with Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Jeff Nusser of joins us to answer five burning questions and help us determine who the Cougars really are.

BlockU: Washington State is 1-3 entering Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mike Leach's Air Raid ranks ninth in the country in passing offense, having racked up 2,170 yards, but they rank just 51st in scoring offense at 35.3 points per game. Connor Halliday leads the nations in passing yards at 1,901, but ranks just 46th in yards per attempt. Will the real Washington State please stand up? Who is this Cougars team?

Nusser: It's true that WSU has piled up a fair amount of yards running the Air Raid, and it's true that perhaps the Cougs haven't scored as many points as you might expect from those raw numbers. There are two explanations for that. The first has to do with turnovers; WSU has given the ball away six times on offense, so that obviously renders a lot of yardage null. The second has to do with sometimes having trouble punching it in the end zone - the Cougs are 75th in red zone touchdown efficiency.

That said, we're still in somewhat small sample sizes, and a lot of that has to do with piling up tons of yards against Nevada and scoring just 13 points after going 1-of-6 on red zone TDs. If you take out that turd of a performance, the Cougs are 14-of-19 on red zone TDs, including 4-of-6 against Oregon, and averaging more than 42 points in those three games. That's probably the "real" WSU.

BlockU: Washington State went to the New Mexico Bowl last season, and with a quarterback like Connor Halliday returning, expectations had to be high in Pullman. Washington State played very well last weekend, taking no. 2 Oregon to the wire, but their overall record is still just 1-3 after four games. How is the 1-3 start viewed by the Wazzu faithful?

Nusser: Disappointing, to be sure. I doubt you'd find a fan that didn't think WSU should be at least 2-1 after the first three games, and most thought 3-0 was a pretty good bet. There actually were some (really stupid and reactionary) talk about firing Mike Leach. But that reactionary nature cuts both ways, and people appear to be encouraged by what went down against Oregon.

The reality is that WSU is a little unfortunate to be 1-3. In Football Outsiders' F/+ metric, WSU is the highest rated three-loss team, by a wide margin. If any number of things (particularly related to turnovers and penalties) go differently in any of the three losses, any of those games could have been wins, including Oregon. It's pretty obvious this team is better than its record, but that doesn't really mean a whole lot in a bottom-line business when the program is trying to get to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in a decade.

BlockU: Do you feel Washington State is coming into Rice-Eccles Stadium with momentum based on how well they played against Oregon, or are they a bit deflated because of the 1-3 record and the close loss at home?

Nusser: It will be a matter of focus and intensity. The one thing WSU has been consistent about under Leach is inconsistency in those areas, and it's a big part of why they're 1-3 instead of 3-1. The Cougs clearly were keyed up for Oregon -- it was a night game at a sold out Martin Stadium, their first home game of the year -- and the question is whether they'll be able to bring that kind of intensity two weeks in a row. Recent history says that's a tall task. Heck, the last time WSU visited Rice-Eccles, it was after a narrow loss to Stanford. And we all know how that turned out.

BlockU: Connor Halliday is a well-known commodity, but the wide receivers (at least to Utah fans) are not. What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of Halliday's favorite targets?

Nusser: With eight guys playing two distinct positions in the Air Raid (inside and outside receiver) that require two distinctly different skill sets, there's a lot to chew on here. On the outside to Halliday's left, Vince Mayle and Dom Williams split time. At 6-3/220, Mayle is as physically imposing a receiver as there is in the Pac-12. He's got great hands and very good speed and he just abuses smaller guys. Williams is lankier and kind of a speedy glider; he got behind Ifo Ekpre-Olomu twice for touchdowns on Saturday.

Inside of them is primarily Rickey Galvin, who isn't particularly explosive, but is generally sure handed. The most underrated member of the group is the right inside receiver, River Cracraft. He's started since day one as a true freshman a year ago, and he just knows how to find holes in a defense. On the outside on the right is Isiah Myers. He generally won't wow you with his raw speed, but he's as good after the catch as anyone on the team. He catches everything.

Put simply, there are no weaknesses. Every guy who steps on the field, including backups Calvin Green, Robert Lewis and Drew Loftus, have the ability to do serious damage.

Oh, and they're all vicious blockers. As soon as one of their teammates catches a ball, they lock up their guy or find someone to decleat.

BlockU: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Wazzu defense?

Nusser: After a poor start to the year against Rutgers, the run defense has really come along. They shut down Nevada, which purposes to run, and the Cougs did very well against Oregon, whose highly touted running backs could muster just 4.3 yards per carry. The overall number versus the Ducks climbs up over 6.2 when you factor in Mariota's carries, but he's such a special talent, I don't really think how a team performs against him is all that predictive. Defensive tackle Xavier Cooper is talented and had his most disruptive game of the year against the Ducks, and the linebackers have come miles in their run fits.

It's behind them where it gets incredibly dicey. The Cougs start freshman at three of the four spots in the secondary, and the one upperclassman -- junior free safety Taylor Taliulu -- was benched after earning the starting job out of camp each of the last two years. The talent is obvious, but they still make a lot of mental errors that lead to unnecessary big plays. Each of Oregon's touchdowns were through the air and wide, wide open. They're getting better, but the improvement needs to get even more rapid.