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Football Back-and-Forth with WSU’s The Daily Evergreen

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No. 25 Stanford takes on Washington State on Friday night in what is shaping up to be a critical juncture in a very tight Pac-12 North Division. The Stanford Daily’s Winston Shi had the opportunity to ask Will Cheshier, football beat writer at The Daily Evergreen (the newspaper of Washington State University), a few questions about the Cougars.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Mike Leach is now in his third season as head coach of WSU football. He’s rubbed some people the wrong way and WSU lost its bowl game last year, but he’s also a very respected coach. Has Leach’s tenure been a success so far, and is Leach the coach that will have Washington State playing in Rose Bowls again?

Cheshier: Despite it being Leach’s third year, he really still is waiting for his recruits and players to develop. For example, at the running back position the Cougars have been much improved this year with Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow getting the bulk of the playing time. Both are redshirt freshmen and came in when Leach was coach. Basically, Leach is still a year away from getting his young players accustomed to the program and what he desires. I do think Leach represents the Cougars’ best opportunity to begin competing for Pac-12 championships again. Once he gets his young guys fully acclimated next season and there’s still a struggle to win games, then I think Cougar fans should begin to be concerned.

TSD: There’s little more to be said about the Washington State offense and QB Connor Halliday’s campaign of destruction along the Pacific Coast. How is WSU getting its yards, though? Short passing, dink-and-dunk? Or is Leach confident enough in his offensive line to throw the ball deep? And can Leach’s passing offense succeed in the red zone?

Cheshier: The biggest thing that coach Leach does with his Air Raid offense is he trusts his quarterback. The offense is designed where Halliday gets a play-call from Leach, but ultimately it’s up to him if that’s the play they’re going to run. If Halliday believes there is going to be a hole to run through, they’ll run the ball. The same is said on adjusting passing plays. Halliday will go through his scan of the defense and their leverage and he will go from there to determine the type of passing play.

The Cougars will mix it up between deep balls and dink and dunk passes depending on what Halliday sees: It’s what makes the offense as potent as it is. As for the offensive line, they are much improved compared to last season and I believe that’s the biggest reason for Halliday’s success this season. The line is much bigger and more physical than they have been in previous seasons and they’ve protected Halliday and have even allowed for a few good games on the ground, something we never saw at all in Leach’s first two seasons. But the biggest reason the offense does as well as they do is because Leach gives his quarterback trust to make the right decisions based on what the quarterback sees. They’ll review it that week during film sessions and Leach will advise his quarterbacks as needed.

TSD: Looking at the stat sheet, Washington State’s defense has been spotty this season. Do you think, however, that it matches up well with Stanford? Can it force turnovers, take advantage of Stanford mistakes and play well enough for the Cougars to win?

Cheshier: The defense is far and away the biggest question mark for this team. Last season the defense was pivotal in their run to a bowl game. The win at USC last season was all on the defense. However, like you said, this year they’ve been very spotty. But the front-seven isn’t as much an issue as the secondary. WSU lost defensive backs Nolan Washington, Damonte Horton and of course Deone Bucannon. They’re very inexperienced in the secondary with Daquawn Brown providing the best play thus far. However, the emergence of freshman safety Sulaiman Hameed has been very helpful and they truly missed his absence in Saturday’s game against California.

Unfortunately for WSU, they’ve failed to make other teams turn the ball over. They’ve only registered two interceptions so far this season. The front-seven has played well recently for the most part. They sacked Mariota seven times but they are susceptible to giving up big running plays. WSU will attempt to force Hogan to beat them and probably focus on stopping the run; however, I believe they’ll have to give their best performance yet if they hope to beat Stanford.

TSD: Stanford hammered Washington State last year in Seattle, but the year before WSU played the Cardinal close in Stanford Stadium. What explains last year’s step back against Stanford?

Cheshier: I think the biggest step back in last year’s performance against Stanford was due to their inability to consistently move the ball against the Cardinal’s physical and aggressive defense. They forced the Cougars to beat them deep by daring them to go over the top on offense. A part of that had to do with Halliday’s inexperience as he was still learning the system and how to be a successful collegiate quarterback. Last season, Halliday forced things more often and risked throwing in tight coverage, while this season he’s doing a better job going through his progressions while also taking a sack or throwing the ball away rather than trying to force something that isn’t there.

The defense in 2012 also came out with fire and played well against Stanford, doing well against the run and forcing them to throw the ball, something that hasn’t been a strength of Stanford since Luck left. Also, [Jeff] Tuel was a senior quarterback at the time and understood reading opposing defenses better than Halliday last season. I would expect things to be different from an offensive standpoint this year as the O-line has been playing excellent and Halliday has really matured over the course of last season and has taken it with him so far this season.

TSD: What are the storylines on and off the field surrounding Washington State football? WSU has a colorful coach and a team that can play well: What mood do you sense around WSU fandom? Do you think beating and/or playing well against Stanford would change those narratives?

Cheshier: There’s been a lot of frustration among fans this season about the play of the Cougars. Fans expected the Cougars to make the next big step this year after reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003 last season. However, the first two weeks of the season were difficult for the team as the coaches didn’t quite figure out their personnel on the defensive front yet. They’ve made several changes to the defense since the Nevada game by adding LB Jeremiah Allison, safety Sulaiman Hameed, and also moving Daquawn Brown to the boundary corner and starting redshirt freshman Charleston White at the opposite corner.

Since then, fans and the team were riding high with confidence after thrashing Portland State, coming close to upsetting Oregon and the dramatic comeback win against Utah. That’s why the loss to California was as devastating as it was for fans. It was a game that many fans thought the Cougs had to win in hopes of reaching another bowl game this season. The team is still focused: Coach Leach is adamant about one week, one game, one win at a time. How they play against Stanford this Friday will be pivotal in dictating how the rest of their season goes.

TSD: Do you have a prediction for the game? What do the Cougars need to do to win? What about Stanford?

Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (center)
Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (center) already has a long kick return for a touchdown versus Washington State in his career (96 yards in 2011), and will certainly be hoping the Cougars test him again on Friday. (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

Cheshier: If the Cougars want to beat Stanford, then they’re going to have to establish a running game and prove their ability in the short passing game with screens and out routes. Stanford will presumably attempt to pressure Halliday into making bad decisions. If Halliday can get rid of the ball quickly and force the Stanford defensive front to run all over the place, the Cougar offense will have a chance to break arguably the best defense in college football. Expect the Cougars to come out trying to sustain long drives rather than going for big-time passing plays. Defensively, the Cougars will need to stop the run and force Hogan to throw. Usually Stanford has a big-time bruising back that Hogan can lean on and help him establish the passing game. However, they’ve struggled to run as well this year and Hogan hasn’t quite proved he can win a game solely with his arm yet.

For Stanford, if they can get to Halliday and force ill-advised throws then they will have their way with WSU and the results could be similar to last season’s outcome. If the O-line can prevent the front-seven of WSU to get to Hogan, then Hogan will probably play well enough to expose the weaknesses of WSU’s secondary. Ty Montgomery is also a pivotal factor for Stanford. The Cougars have struggled in covering kick-offs and punt returns in recent weeks and gave up a punt return touchdown to Utah’s Kaelin Clay. Montgomery is just as explosive and could return a kick for a score. Offensively, if Stanford gets Montgomery touches in the backfield or in open space, it could spell trouble for a defense that has certainly had their problems of late.

My prediction for the outcome of this game is much closer than last year…but ultimately the same result. Stanford 34 – WSU 24 in a game where Stanford is in control for the majority of the game.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.