WHAT IS COUGAR SPORTS WEEKLY?
Cougar Sports Weekly was a subscription email newsletter written by author Jeff Nusser that ceased publishing in October 2012. You can continue to find his work at CougCenter.com and in College Basketball Prospectus 2012-2013.
Once the Golden Bears were able to consistently rip off five to 10 yards at a time on the ground, the defensive formula for WSU was pretty much out the window. Heading into the game, I was sure the contest would hinge on the Cougars’ ability to disrupt Zach Maynard throwing the ball. Cal had given up more sacks than anyone in the conference, and Maynard isn’t exactly known for his ability to make good decisions in the face of a strong rush. If the Cougars could do what they had been doing – playing well against the run – and put Cal into obvious passing situations, they’d have a chance to severely limit the Bears’ offense.
But that becomes a lot harder to do when a team is running the ball so successfully that it only has to throw it on 32 percent of its plays. Even so, Maynard made two critical mistakes that ended in turnovers; unfortunately, the Cougars just couldn’t force him to throw it enough to put him in position to make even more of what would be inevitable errors. The running game also took away one of WSU’s most powerful weapons. It’s awfully hard to pin your ears back and rush the passer when your opponent is consistently putting itself in manageable downs and distances on which a run or pass is equally plausible.
That Cal was able to keep the Cougars at arms’ length the entire evening with this strategy shows just how far WSU still has to go to be a quality Pac-12 outfit
Despite the stylistic differences, the results for each guy this year are virtually identical – your preference for QB really is just a matter of which brand of bad QB play you prefer. Tuel’s completion percentage is a lot higher, but Halliday’s yards per attempt far exceeds Tuel’s, despite the plethora of incompletions; Tuel’s interception rate is much lower, but Halliday’s touchdown rate is much higher. Do you feel better if your QB isn’t giving the ball away? Are you willing to put up with interceptions if it means more TDs?
You can argue all you want about which guy has been better, but really … it’s just splitting hairs.
Besides, I think this sort of argument misses the bigger, more important question. The one I posed at the beginning. What if Tuel’s performance can’t simply be explained away by a porous offensive line? What if Halliday is just interception prone and can’t be taught how to make better decisions?
What if this is what Halliday is? What if Halliday’s 494-yard, 4-touchdown, 0-interception day against ASU is just an extreme outlier? What if the 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio is just what we can expect from him in the remainder of his career?
Answering “yes” to any of that is a pretty freaky thought. And, quite frankly, we need to know the answer to those questions, because if this really is who he is, that changes a lot of things heading forward. I think that’s probably as good of a reason as any to continue starting Halliday the rest of this season.
From the newsletter this week, how not to pull a big upset:
Oregon just has so much speed on defense. When you get that close to the goal line and the field gets compressed … it’s so incredibly hard to make room to do things. That speed makes the windows microscopic, and it’s a huge reason why Oregon is seventh nationally in red zone touchdown percentage defense – the Ducks have given up just six TDs in 21 opponent red zone trips. Arizona, with its prolific offense, scored zero points on six red zone trips against Oregon last week.
This was something that was tough for me to see watching the game live from the other end of the stadium, but was very clear when I watched each play about three times yesterday morning: Oregon completely dominated those three plays. There’s just no other way to put it. And I think that’s really the story behind why WSU didn’t go for it there. Maybe the Cougs convert on fourth if they go for it, but Leach obviously thought the odds were low. Combined with how mentally fragile this team is – Leach’s words, not mine — Leach did what he felt he had to do.
It’s tough for me to say whether that’s the right call in the long run. Maybe WSU is able to build off the fact that it hung with Oregon for a half, and getting those three points was a part of that. And maybe the boost from being able to point to that first half score during preparation this week is legitimate. I’m not going to pretend that I know the answer to that.
But I know one thing: Kicking that field goal was absolutely the wrong call if WSU was going to pull off that upset on Saturday. Same thing with the later field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 3-yard-line. Sure, if WSU doesn’t get either of those scores, they’re down by at least 10 at half. But even if they only get one of them, it’s basically a wash. So, the only way you shouldn’t go for it on both of those is if you’re absolutely convinced the odds are good that you’re going to go 0-for-2.
The point? If you get them both, maybe you’ve got a real shot at an upset.
As part of the ramp up to the football season, I’ve been previewing each of the Cougars’ opponents.
Each preview has a number of different parts, including asome guest analysis from a reporter who covers the team in question. For this one, I tabbed Adam Jude, a friend of mine and an Oregon grad who has covered the Ducks at the Eugene Register-Guard for years before moving on to The Oregonian in the last couple of weeks. Here’s an excerpt of one of his answers:
This team appears poised to be as good or better than the last two years. What’s the one thing that might hold this team back from making it to the BCS Championship again?
- The passing game is a major question mark. Not only do we not know who will be throwing the ball, but Oregon is mostly unproven at wide receiver and extremely raw at tight end. Yes, there’s a lot of talent at both positions, but it’s unclear who will emerge at this point.
- Defensive depth: The Ducks have the top-end talent to be one of the program’s best defenses, if not the best, ever. But because of the pace at which the offense plays, the defense was on the field more than any other team in the country last season. That means the Ducks have had to rely on 20-25 guys playing in a constant rotation. Again, it’s not immediately certain who those backups will be, and the Ducks will need them for meaningful snaps throughout the season.
- As with any team, injuries: This is particularly true at running back. Oregon should have one of the most dynamic 1-2 punches in the country with Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. Barner has been electric in a reserve role behind his good friend LaMichael James the past three seasons. But can he carry the load consistently? The same is true for the slightly-built Thomas, perhaps the single most explosive player in the nation. But Thomas averaged just 10 touches per game last season. How will he hold up if he touches the ball, say, 20 times per game? It’s one of many questions facing the Ducks this season.
Additionally, I like to pick out a few numbers — either rankings, statistics or data — that intrigue me about the opponent. Here’s one:
40 – The Oregon offense’s national ranking by S&P+ on passing downs in 2011. Well, well, well — seems as though we might have found a little chink in the armor. If you were paying close attention to last year’s game in Eugene, this doesn’t shock you. The Cougs repeatedly put Oregon into passing situations early in the game and Darron Thomas repeatedly struggled to make the throws. Oregon could face a similar issue in 2012, as it faces a quarterback decision in fall camp. Cougar fans will remember Bryan Bennett, who relieved the injured Thomas last season and proceded to put the game away. But he’s hardly a proven commodity, and freshman Marcus Mariota looked awfully good in the spring. Both candidates for the starting QB job fall into the “dual threat” category, and it remains to be seen what each will be able to do with his arm. Of course, getting the Ducks into positions where they’re forced to throw the ball is the trick, and it’s awfully hard to do.
I’m itching for football season as much as anyone else, so for this week’s Cougar Sports Weekly, I decided to start digging into the 2012 season in earnest by previewing WSU’s first opponent, BYU.
There’s a lot of good stuff in there — about 2,300 words total on those other Cougars — but one of the cooler things is that I’m lining up guys who cover WSU’s opponent to weigh in on the specifics of their team. For this week, I was able to get the help of Greg Wrubell, BYU’s play-by-play man. (Follow him on Twitter here – he’s very cool and responds to tweets regularly!) He answered three questions; here’s the first:
Nelson and Heaps shared the job to start the 2010 season, with Heaps assuming the clear-cut starter’s role only after Nelson was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the third game. Heaps struggled mightily as a true freshman starter in ’10, but finished well, earning MVP honors in the New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP. Nelson recovered from surgery, but Heaps was named the starter going into spring of 2011, never having had to truly “beat out” Nelson for the no. 1 job. Interesting that in the spring game, Nelson led his team to a comeback overtime win over Heaps’ squad, and many players chose to take some meaning out of that particular situation.
Heaps started the 2011 season, and quite simply never got into a groove. In his five starts, his completion percentage dropped in every game, from one game to the next, and the BYU offense had its worst first-five-game productivity in decades. Adding to the difficulties was an offensive coordinator (Brandon Doman) learning on the fly in his first season on the job. Doman thought Heaps would engineer a prolific huddle-up, pro-style drop-back passing attack, but Heaps, for whatever reason, struggled to make throws and his timing was just off. Heaps is a very good technical/mechanical QB, but the mental/emotional aspects of his game were sorely lacking. He was never able to assert himself as a leader (a number of factors were involved), and the offense-indeed the team-was fractured as a result. At 2-2 on the season, BYU was on the verge of losing at home to in-state foe Utah State, trailing by two scores in the third quarter. Doman decided to make the QB switch that turned the entire season around. He inserted Nelson, who immediately began to move the chains, utilizing his scrambling ability to energize the offense. Nelson led the comeback from down 24-13, tossing the deflected game-winning TD with 11 seconds remaining, and the rest is history. The only other game Heaps would start was a game Nelson missed due to injury, as Nelson went 6-1 as a starter, and totally won over the team, which finished 10-3 with a third straight bowl win.
Nelson helped turn BYU from one of the worst third-down teams in the county through four games, into one of the top five in the nation by the end of the season. His style and Heaps’ style are totally different; Nelson is an excellent runner and decent thrower (finished 2011 ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency), while Heaps had a gun but no ability to run. Nelson is already third on BYU’s all-time QB rushing tally, and should pass Steve Young for second place this upcoming season, with an outside chance of finishing his career as BYU’s number one rushing QB.
The bottom line of Nelson’s emergence and Heaps’ benching comes down to leadership. Players love Nelson, who has never had anything handed to him at BYU, and has gone through tough times to get to where he is. Last season, as the backup quarterback, he was a gunner on special teams. There aren’t too many guys in the different-color QB jerseys running down returners in kick coverage drills, but Nelson was that guy last season. He is as tough as they come. Last season, in a home game versus Idaho, he suffered a partially collapsed lung and rib cartilage injury while standing in on a hit. A few plays later, he was throwing a touchdown. Half an hour later, he was in the hospital, where he stayed for two days to stabilize. Three weeks later, at about 75% of wellness, he was throwing for a season-high 363 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Hawaii-a game Bronco Mendenhall was sure he would miss. That’s Riley Nelson.
The issue also included some brief thoughts on the demise of the Pac-12/Big Ten scheduling agreement — you can find details here. I’ve got Jim Allen of the Spokesman-Review lined up to talk about the Eagles in the next one.
The popular opinion among fans is that Leach is killing it in living rooms, luring talent to WSU that wouldn’t otherwise consider the Cougars if Leach wasn’t leading the charge. It’s time to pump the brakes just a little bit on that idea. Here are two classes side by side. One is this 2013 class recruited by Mike Leach; the other is a WSU class from the recent past (star ratings via Scout.com, because I feel like they evaluate the west coast — all the way up to Washington — better than the other services):
Mike Leach, 2013 Paul Wulff, 2011 Verbal Commits
as of June 26
10 10 4* 1 1 3* 1 4 2* 7 5 NR 1 0
I’ve pointed this out to a few people on Twitter, and each of them has been surprised. That 2011 class started incredibly strong, with four-star linebacker Chester Su’a and three-star defensive end Logan Mayes among the early commits. Having 10 commitments right now isn’t revoluationary, and beyond that, at least one objective measure would suggest that this current class pales in comparison to 2011. …
Look: There are some guys in this class I’m really excited about. And I realize trying to convince people to be rational over recruiting probably is a fool’s errand, anyway, because … well, irrationality is pretty much inherent in any endeavor where people are hanging on the whims of teenagers. But I feel like it’s my duty to say, hey, we’ve been down this road before. Our coach is awesome, but to say he’s lapping his predecessors just isn’t accurate.
Unfortunately, the Cougs will enter the season with no fewer questions than they had at the beginning of this season. The pitching that was so inconsistent — presumably because of youth — will be a year older, which you figure should make some talented arms much more effective. But the offense loses a ton, led by the departures of Derek Jones and redshirt junior Taylor Ard. Both have already signed their pro contracts, starting short-season A ball last week — Jones with the Tri-Cities Dust Devils and Ard with the Everett Aquasox. In fact, they played against each other on their first nights in pro ball, which is pretty cool, right?
It would be a bit myopic, though, to simply focus on those two; WSU also loses leadoff hitter Kyle Johnson (.309 batting average, .408 on-base percentage, .401 slugging percentage), third baseman Patrick Claussen (.301/.383/.398) and second baseman Tommy Richards (.289/.364/.373). In all, the top five hitters from what was a fairly productive offense have moved on.
The big question is where the pop will come from in the lineup. Hitters such as Jason Monda and Collin Slaybaugh have flashed the potential to hit for excellent average, but the two sophomores had just 15 extra base hits between them — with just one home run — in more than 300 at bats. Adam Nelubowich is the leading returning home run hitter with four; the rest of the returning team has just three combined.