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September 28, 2013

Ask the Expert: Washington State

Cardinal Sports Report caught up with Britton Ransford, the publisher of WazzuWatch.com, to preview the Cardinal's clash with Washington State.

Cardinal Sports Report: How has Washington State's defense improved since last year? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this year's unit?

Britton Ransford: The biggest difference from last year to this year is that everyone knows their assignments and keeps the play in front of them. Other than a busted play and missed tackle against Auburn that resulted in a 75 yard scamper, the defense has been solid in limiting the big play that destroyed them last season.

It also helps that they returned nearly everyone this season and they have been able to build quality depth along the defensive line. Team speed is still an issue, but it's better.

The statistic that stands out is that the Cougars' pass defense ranks No. 2 in the country and have yet to give up a touchdown through the air. That has a lot to do with playing four games against teams that want to run the ball first, but when tested they've been able to hold their own. Overall, they've been strong at every position but I think they would like to get to the quarterback a little more.

CSR: Auburn gained nearly 300 yarsd rushing against Washington State. How does the Cougars' front seven stack up against the run?

BR: The Cougars had trouble against the sweeps that Auburn threw at them and they struggled to tackle well resulting in several big plays. The front seven has really bottled up running backs over the last three games.

They're pretty big and multiple on the defensive line and they will rotate in five or six guys throughout the game. Ioane Guata, Xavier Cooper and Kalafitoni Pole have been excellent so far this season. The linebackers are undersized across the board and can get pushed back rather easily against power running teams. They do, however, have good speed to get to the edges in order to shrink the field.

I'd say this unit is much better than the group that held Stepfan Taylor to 58 yards on 21 carries last season. Can they replicate that performance? Probably not, but this front seven is one that will have an impact on the game at times.

CSR: Jeff Tuel was effective throwing the ball against Stanford last season. How does this year's starter, Connor Halliday, compare to Tuel?

BR: Tuel completed 71 percent of his passes against Stanford last season because he was taking what the Cardinal defense was giving him and getting the ball to his receivers on the underneath routes. Halliday has been much better this season about letting the offense come to him rather than attempt to show off his arm down the field.

That's something that he'll still have problems with at times, which is apparent with his high interception rate, but he's slowly starting to gel within the Air Raid.
He's threw for over 340 yards in three of four games this season but struggled against USC, which presents a defense similar challenge as Stanford will present this season. He's great when he gets rid of the ball early, but when he holds onto it and moves around the pocket, it's typically a disaster waiting to happen.

CSR: Aside from the quarterback, who are Washington State's difference makers on offense?

BR: First and foremost is Gabe Marks. The sophomore wide receiver had a career day last week, tallying 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns and is now No. 2 in the conference in receptions with 31. He's the ultimate competitor and catches everything thrown his way.

Opposite Marks is Dom Williams, who had over 70 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal last season. Williams has been dangerous over the top, accounting for two touchdowns of 48-plus yards and has three touchdowns on the year. Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason will get the limited carries in this offense and both are the same kind of player in that they can catch the ball out of the backfield and possess runaway speed in the open field.
Expect to see a lot of Jermiah Laufasa on short yardage and goal line situations. Laufasa, a second year walk-on, has four touchdowns this season, including two last week.

CSR: What must Washington State be able to do to pull the upset?

BR: They have to take care of the football. They absolutely outplayed Auburn and shot themselves in the foot with turnovers. Last week, they committed four turnovers and were lucky they were playing the worst team in the country. If the Cougars want to pull the upset, Halliday, first and foremost, needs to be smart with the football.

CSR: What's your final score prediction and why?

BR: As the week has gone on I've had the urge to take the Cougars in this one. The reasoning is that is seems they matchup well against the run and have the playmakers to exploit the secondary. If Halliday can get rid of the ball quickly - and limit his turnovers, which is a big question mark - the offense can essentially take away Murphy and Skov's pass rush.

However, there's a reason that Stanford has a little number five next to their name and they're a great football team. It's going to be pouring rain in Seattle with a 100 percent chance of rain throughout essentially the entire game. That tilts the game in the Cardinal's favor. I think it will be close and I believe the Cougars will have a lead in the fourth quarter, but Stanford comes out on top, 27-23.

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