It’s been four years since Washington State entered the Coliseum, and when they come calling on September 7th, they’ll kick off the Pac-12 season against USC on a shiny new network, Fox Sports 1. The Trojans second game of the year will be an interesting test given the prowess of Mike Leach, but are the Cougars in a position to get their first win at USC since 2000? Let’s break it down as we continue to preview the 2013 USC football schedule.
Cougars by the numbers:
2012 Record: 3-9 (1-7, 6th in Pac-12 North)
19 Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 8 on defense, 3 on special teams
Key Returners: QB Connor Halliday, WR Brett Bartlone, WR Gabe Marks, DB Deone Bucannon
Key Losses: QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson, LB/DE Travis Long
Player to watch: WR Brett Bartlone
When you think of Mike Leach’s air raid offense, undersized slot receivers like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola come to mind. This year, that guy is Brett Bartlone. As freshman in 2012, Bartlone led the Cougars in receptions with 53 catches, fitting Leach’s “H-receiver” position to a tee. With the offense spread extremely wide, the 5-foot-10 Bartlone is positioned in the immediate slot, making him available in the underneath passing game on short routes over the middle. It’s the tonic of the air raid offense and offsets a traditional running game, while drawing linebackers in coverage and keeping other playmaking receivers like Gabe Marks and Dominique Williams available. Bartlone, the schematic benefactor of the H-receiver role, will take a big leap in production in 2013 as Marquess Wilson is long gone and Leach has reputation of gaining trust in his players as they age and gain experience. Don’t be surprised if the sophomore winds up among the conference’s leaders for receptions.
WSU’s 2013 outlook
It’s year two for Mike Leach and despite finishing 3-9 in 2012 and suffering through an eight-game losing streak through the bulk of the season, there’s plenty of optimism to be found on the Palouse. Washington State closed the season with a gut-check victory over arch-rival Washington in the Apple Cup last November, and pushed Stanford, the eventual Rose Bowl champions, to the brink of a major upset.
While the dynamic trio of stars Jeff Tuel, Marquess Wilson and Travis Long is nothing but a memory, there are enough pieces in the mix, especially on offense for the Cougars to turn some heads this season.
Washington State returns eight starters on offense for a group that led the conference in passing, averaging 330 yards per game. Quarterback Connor Halliday is the likely starting quarterback going into week 1, and he had his moments last season when taking over for the ineffective and/or banged up Tuel. Despite issues with accuracy –he completed just 52-percent of his passes– Halliday enters fall camp with an edge over redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, and Kyle Rancourt over at Coug Center had a nicely done spring comparison of the two signal callers. In USC layman’s terms, Halliday is the Max Wittek, while Apodaca is the Cody Kessler.
Regardless of who winds up taking snaps, if a talented corps of receivers including Gabe Marks, Dominique Williams and Brett Bartlone are to be utilized successfully, the Cougs have to get better at protecting the quarterback.
Matador offensive line play plagued the Cougars during the Paul Wulff era and it leaked into the start of the Leach era; WSU gave up the most sacks in the country last year, with a margin of over a half sack per game. The Cougars haven’t finished better than 114th in sacks allowed since 2007, and during that five year stint, they’ve given up an average of four sacks per game.
This year, six of the seven linemen that made starts in 2012 return, and two JuCo transfers enter the mix, including first team All-NorCal tackle Devonte McClain. Experience will be key, especially at left tackle, where Gunnar Eklund made seven starts as a freshman last season before an injury against Utah cost him the remainder of the season. With a passing offense that relies on timing, WSU needs to stability as soon as possible, and maybe Eklund can grow into that guy, if he isn’t bumped by a JuCo transfer.
The lack of protection up front led to a lack of a ground attack in 2012, as the Cougars were the nation’s worst team in rushing a season ago. Senior running back Carl Winston is gone, though he averaged just 3.29 yards per carry. Teondray Caldwell will be the starting running back come September, and he put up 269 yards on 56 carries as a freshman.
As with the offense, the Washington State defense returns plenty of starters. However, there’s much more ground to be made up on defense in terms of consistency. The Cougars played up and down to their opponents all season long in 2012, so much so, that the numbers are staggering.
In seven games against FBS teams with winning records, including a game against Oregon, WSU ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up just 383 yards per game. On the flip side, the Cougars gave up an out-of-this-world 487 yards per game in four matchups against losing teams. How’s that possible? Well, they gave up over 500 yards to both Colorado and Cal, with Berekley averaging nearly seven yards per play. They also held Stanford to just 256 total yards. Bizarre.
Leading the way on defense is strong safety Deone Buccanon and sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe. Bucannon led the Cougars in both interceptions and tackles and was named to Athlon’s second team All-Pac-12 going into the season.
Altogether, the Cougars have inconsistencies and holes, but they’re slowly gearing up to improve upon their record from a year ago. They’ll just have to do so with a schedule that includes trips to Auburn, Oregon and USC.
Early Prediction: USC 44, Washington State 27
While playing the Cougars isn’t be a textbook trap game for the Trojans, it certainly could be an early game that keeps Lane Kiffin and Clancy Pendergast up at night. USC meets the conference’s most pass-oriented offense and an inopportune time, while the Trojans will be in the midst of trying to break in what could be an entirely new secondary.
Kiffin’s troupe has been in that same situation before, most notably the 2010 season opener at Hawaii, when the Trojans faced a run and shoot offensive while playing with several new faces in the secondary including T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling. The result was an ungodly amount of yards through the air, to the tune of 459 to be exact.
This go around, USC switches to a 5-2 defensive scheme that will draw the middle linebackers into the coverage of WSU’s slot receivers, while relying on the defensive line to get pressure on quarterback Connor Halliday. The Trojans finished fourth in the nation in sacks at 3.46 per game last season and if WSU’s offensive line woes are any indication, Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams should play big roles in neutralizing the Cougars.
On the other side of the ball, WSU will need to find an answer for Marqise Lee, as with every other team on the Trojans’ schedule.