It’s not often the Cougs get multiple opportunities on ESPN, just a casualty of the small-town commitment in relation to the rest of the Pac-12 Conference. But this is the second such opportunity for Washington State this season and only the 3rd of at least a 6 game national television lineup in 2013.
ESPNU held the Auburn game, FOX Sports 1 had USC and will air the Cal game in 2 weeks, FOX gets the first Apple Cup in “New” Husky Stadium and ESPN is showing both the Stanford game this week and the Arizona State contest on Halloween night, Oct. 31st.
Prime-time or not (it’s a little bit late for the East-coasterners) if the Cougs can keep it close, they have the athletes to both capture the eye of the nation for a couple extra hours and pull the shocking upset of the season. Coming close against Auburn wasn’t good enough, not because of the loss, but because of the chances WSU had to win.
It really shouldn’t be much different on Saturday. Stanford is again (and still) ranked as a top 5 team in the country, but they haven’t changed much (if at all) under head coach David Shaw this season than they were in 2012. There are a few new pieces, but nothing drastic outside of quarterback Kevin Hogan who took the reigns after the near stumble against WSU last season and hasn’t looked back.
If you remember, the Cougs almost ruined that entire Card 2012 season, coming within 9 yards of a tie on an epic final drive that fell short when then-quarterback Jeff Tuel was harassed and ultimately dropped for the 9th and 10th times in the game on back to back plays as time ran out. Ultimately, the critics just said it was a “trap game” with a team that had two weeks to prepare (due to a bye) and moved on, not crediting Washington State in the least for their heroic effort or improvement, even after making Oregon sweat just a couple weeks prior.
If you thought that was a trap, look out this weekend. As we discussed yesterday, it seems as if the small-town Cougars are more prepared for the big-boy Stanford front this time around, so it’s going to come down to play-making. It’s just the kind of game that has Cougar fans viably excited about a shocker in Seattle.
Of course we all know coach Mike Leach and the air raid (recently tabbed “Coug-Air” by a few WSU pundits) will throw the ball and throw it often. With at least a semblance of a running attack against Auburn and Idaho, and a valiant effort at one against USC, quarterback Connor Halliday and his depth-chart-packed-list of receivers will have even more space to make plays.
One such receiver is Gabe Marks, the kid who was just yesterday added to the Belitnikoff Award watch-list after an 11 catch, 146 yard effort against Idaho that included two touchdowns. Marks enters Saturday’s “Seattle Game” second in the Pac-12 Conference with 31 receptions, fourth with 348 receiving yards and tied for the team lead with three touchdown catches.
A friend told me last night, “Well they’ll just key in on Marks and shut him down.” Well that’s just fine, if that’s going to be Stanford’s key, then I think Mike Leach and Connor Halliday will say “thank you very much.”
The Cougars have 13 different receivers who have caught a pass this season and a majority producing some big numbers. For example Dom Williams has broken onto the scene for 10 grabs, tallying a whopping 24.1 yards a catch (241 total) and a team lead-tying three touchdowns. His play has included a big catch in every game (and on several different kinds of routes), including the 50 yarder on a tunnel screen that set up the game winning field goal in L.A. in week 2.
Add WR Kristoff Williams’ 17 snatches for 134 (7.88 yards per catch), Bobby Ratliff’s 8 for 116 (14.5 YPC) and Vince Mayle’s 6 for 65 (10.83 YPC). Then continue to three more Coug receivers with 10 catches apiece, River Cracraft, Isiah Myers and Rickey Galvin, all for at least 7. 83 YPC.
You start to get the picture right? It’s far from a one-man show and Leach prefers it that way. But he’d prefer even more if Stanford treated it as such and if they do the passing numbers could sky-rocket in a hurry. If they treat Marks like any other receiver the Venice, CA product is capable of the same types of numbers he has put up all season and those that are steadily growing by the game in his young Cougar-career.
Regardless of who headlines out wide this week for WSU, the only thing the Cougar quarterback has to be really conscious of is not keying in on his first read too long and throwing the ball away to an opposing jersey if the throw isn’t there. It’s Halliday’s number one Kryptonite. He’s has given the ball away 9 times already this season, including 8 by way of interception. Most of those were picks that great Leach-coached quarterbacks in the past would have avoided.
The thing Halliday has to realize is that he doesn’t have to be Super Man. In fact, it’s his job specifically not-to-be. All he needs to accomplish is getting the ball to all of his weapons on Saturday against a Cardinal nationally recognized defense that will be missing one of their key playmakers (S Ed Reynolds) for a half of football. If he does, the rest should take care of itself.
This is another huge opportunity to validate the new “Coug-Air” on a national stage. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to validate Washington State University as a program on the rise. Time to go to work.