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Scouting the Cougs with CougCenter

NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Nusser of CougCenter joined me to preview the game this weekend. Make sure to hit up their site for more on Wazzu:

1: How do you think the team has rallied and responded especially after the off season they had?

A: Much better than most of us expected them to. Look, WSU hasn’t ever been a program where a bowl game is an expectation every year, and given the heavy losses in personnel and coaching this offseason -- including the death by suicide of the presumed starting quarterback, Tyler Hilinski, just after last season ended -- most people were figuring it could be a real struggle to get back to a fourth consecutive bowl. After more or less cruising through the last 10 quarters of the non-conference schedule, the Cougs very nearly won at USC (maybe should have won), and they’re sure looking like a team that’s destined to get back to the postseason. That’s a pretty cool place for us to be, and the players deserve a ton of credit for that.

2: The Wazzu defense took some big losses, including DC Grinch going to OSU, and Hercules Mata’afa moving on, how have they rebuilt?

A: The new defensive coordinator is Tracy Claeys, who was best known to our fans as the guy who shut down our offense in the 2016 Holiday Bowl as the coach of the Minnesota Gophers. What’s neat about what he’s done is that he’s adapted himself to the talent on hand; the system he’s running right now uses Grinch’s terminology, and looks a heck of a lot like what Grinch ran, emphasizing penetration and disruption at the line of scrimmage. That will change over time as the personnel morphs into something more ideal for him, but he deserves a ton of credit for adjusting -- most coaches don’t do that. The strength of the unit is the linebackers, led by sixth-year senior Peyton Pelluer, who is your typically tough middle linebacker. Flanking him are Jahad Woods, who is a speedster, and nickel back Hunter Dale, who is a hybrid LB/DB in this system and will make plays all over the field.

3: Seems like Luke Falk was a bit polarizing to some fans at Wazzu, how has the program filled the QB spot?

A: You won’t find very many fans who don’t think Gardner Minshew II isn’t an upgrade from Falk, who had what was easily his worst season last year. Minshew is a grad transfer from East Carolina, where he was a part-time starter the last two seasons. He was all set to transfer to Alabama, hold a clipboard, and transition into coaching. But WSU was looking for a QB to fill the vacancy left by Hilinski, friend of Mike Leach and Air Raid pioneer Hal Mumme knew this guy, they got connected, and the rest is looking like history. Minshew came in and won the job nearly immediately -- there was a “competition,” but it was pretty clear who the best guy was -- and while we were worried that maybe said more about the other guys who had been here for years (the Air Raid is famously difficult to master, and East Carolina was horrible, so how good can he be?), that turned out not to be the case. Minshew has gotten better with every game, proving to be an accurate passer, excellent with his feet, and tough as nails. He’s a massive reason -- maybe the biggest reason -- WSU looks like it should cruise past six wins again.

4: Which wide receivers are going to drive us mad on Saturday and keep moving chains? Same with the running backs?

A: All of them: WSU has six guys with at least 150 yards receiving (one of them a running back), and four guys over 200 yards. The closest thing WSU has to a go-to receiver is Tay Martin, the “X” -- he lines up outside on the left. He’s the most physically gifted of WSU’s pass catchers, leading the team in every receiving statistic, but here’s the thing: He was held to just three receptions for one yard last week (it was clear USC was trying to stop him in particular), so all Minshew did was throw it to everyone else, piling up 344 yards and three TDs. The Cougs can burn you at any time with any of the four receivers on the field; Easop Winston Jr. (the “Z,” outside to the right) was the beneficiary last week with six catches for 143 yards. Jamire Calvin is an explosive receiver from the “Y” (typically inside to the right) who I suspect is in for a big game today. And WSU features a two-headed monster at running back with James Williams and Max Borghi. Williams is rarely brought down by the first guy in space, while Borghi -- a true freshman whom Stanford tried to flip at the last minute -- is a decisive, physical runner. Together, they have accounted for more than 500 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. In this way, it’s a prototypical Air Raid: Anyone can beat you from anywhere.

5: What’s the biggest concern going into this game that Wazzu has?

A: Utah’s defense probably is the best one we’ve seen; how is the offense going to handle that? Also, special teams has been spotty, and you can draw a direct line from that (botched PAT, blocked field goal) to last week’s loss to the Trojans. We might not have won even if we did execute in that phase, but we definitely lost because of it. Hopefully that’s cleaned up, because I presume the Utes can do some things in that phase, just like they always seem to.

6: Why does Wazzu win a 4th straight over the Utes?

A: Because the gap between WSU’s defense and Utah’s offense is much, much larger than the gap between WSU’s offense and Utah’s defense. Provided there’s no weirdness -- a sudden spate of turnovers by the Cougs, or some more horrendous special teams play at inopportune times -- I’m thinking this looks something like 27-17, WSU.