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Know the Enemy 2022: Washington State Cougars
Jeff Nusser of CougCenter helps us get a better sense of a very good Cougs team.
Our dear friend Jeff, graciously answered questions regarding the Cougs for us this week.
Your defense was racking up sacks early in this year, is that more on scheme going pass rush heavy or is your personnel that full of havoc? Who should we watch out for?
A bit of both, really. Former defensive coordinator/current head coach Jake Dickert and new defensive coordinator Brian Ward certainly focus on havoc from a philosophical perspective, which has almost always been the recipe for defensive success at WSU, where landing the kinds of players you need to play more traditional defensive schemes has been challenging.
But that shouldn’t discount the players on the field, particularly the trio of Ron Stone Jr., Brennan Jackson, and Daiyan Henley. Stone and Jackson are the bookends at defensive end; Stone (named all-Pac-12 first team in the preseason) is more of a traditional speed rush guy, while Jackson is more powerful. Henley, meanwhile, is the weakside linebacker … and he is absolutely devastating on blitzes (and pretty much everything else he does).
Oregon was able to neutralize them, but the Ducks have done that to everyone – I’m not sure Cal has enough talent to win those one-on-one battles on the edges while also accounting for WSU’s excellent blitz schemes.
If you were to describe coach Dickert's style of coaching it would be __ because __?
Self-assured and humble. When Dickert was first elevated to the interim role last year in the wake of Nick Rolovich being (rightfully) fired for refusing to get vaccinated, I thought that his “aw, shucks” midwestern vibe couldn’t possibly be authentic. And while I’ll offer the caveat that none of us actually know any of these people, it sure seems like my original conclusion couldn’t be farther from the truth. He knows what he believes and he’s able to communicate it in a simple and relatable way, which is something that is key to being a good coach. He’s also relentlessly positive. That doesn’t mean that he runs around pretending everything is ok, but it does mean that he chooses to spend his time building people up rather than tearing them down, and I think this fosters incredible belief on the part of his players, who play exceptionally hard and display tremendous grit from the top of the roster to the bottom.
From the naked eye it seems like Coach Dickert has put an emphasis on not beating themselves this season and for the most part it has worked aside from the Oregon fiasco. How would you rate the discipline of the Cougars this year?
Excellent. If your philosophy as a defensive coach is that negative plays and turnovers are the key to what you’re doing, it necessarily follows that you’d want to avoid those things on offense, right? The Cougs have mostly pulled that off.
Simply put has Cam Ward lived up to fans expectations? If yes, how so and if not, why not?
As always, I think it depends on which fans you ask. A lot of fans get an initial impression and are never able to move off that. Those fans would tell you that he has not, because – after considerable offseason hype – he didn’t light the world on fire right out of the gate. He was pretty pedestrian against Idaho, WSU beat Wisconsin more in spite of him than because of him, and while he was really good in the first half against Colorado State, the second half was about as painful a half of offensive football as many of us could remember. Along the way, he often seemed to be unable to get off his first read, many of his scrambles led to nothing, and he was throwing some pretty puzzling interceptions.
However, those of us who are actually able to take in and evaluate new data and then reach new conclusions are quite pleased. The improvement from week-to-week has been fairly linear, culminating with last weekend’s performance against Oregon: 37-of-48, 375 yards, three total TDs. (There also were two interceptions, but neither were his fault). He’s processing defenses faster by the week, and his scrambles are now leading to productive plays. (Which is good, because the offensive line is quite bad.) He’s absolutely the real deal, and any of our fans who are silly enough to hang on to their first impressions are really missing out.
Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
It’s really all about Cam, to be honest, but let’s talk for a minute about one of my favorite players: Receiver Renard Bell. Between a freshman redshirt and extra COVID season eligibility and a season-ending injury last year, he’s in his seventh season at WSU, having signed with Mike Leach in 2016. TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN. I’m sure he’s older than some of the grad assistants. And while all the receivers have made significant contributions this season, it’s Bell’s that bring me the most joy. Beyond being an absolute joy of a human, he’s WSU’s most explosive player, a speedster from the inside who is a threat to take it to the house at any time. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris gets the ball into his hands in a variety of ways.
Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
Let’s expand on Daiyan Henley. A quarterback in high school, he signed with Nevada to play wide receiver, which he did for a few years. Then, he switched to linebacker. It turns out that he is very, very good at playing linebacker! He quickly became an all-MWC performer there, then transferred to WSU for his final season, following his defensive coordinator to Pullman. You know how you watch a game and you become certain that a guy is destined for the NFL because he just moves differently than everyone else? That’s Henley. He is everywhere on the field, possessing a level of explosive athleticism at his position that we haven’t seen at WSU in a long time. His star has risen so fast that Mel Kiper is throwing his name around as a potential first rounder in the spring. If he’s having an impact on the game – and so far, only Oregon has neutralized him – Cal is in trouble. Oh, and Henley also is hilarious on social media. This makes me love him even more.
Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for you?
These questions usually are framed in the positive, but I’m going to diverge from that. Last week, WSU’s safeties really, really struggled with Oregon’s speed. I know Cal doesn’t have that kind of athleticism on the roster (not many teams do, including WSU), but still – it wasn’t hard to draw a straight line from the players who rotated in at that position group and the overall struggles of the defense. WSU has made its living on defense under Dickert by forcing turnovers and not giving up explosives; if the safeties help WSU get back to that this weekend, that should do a lot to swing the game in WSU’s favor. If not … [shudders]
What does Washington State need to do to win the game?
Explosives: Get them on offense, prevent them on defense. Simple, right? Lol. I’d probably also like to add eliminating stupid turnovers, because we’ve had too many of those.
What does Cal need to do to win the game?
Offensively, Cal will need to prevent the negative plays that the WSU defense thrives on – the Cougars get teams behind the chains, and then they turn it loose on the QB. Defensively, Cal needs to take advantage of WSU’s … uh … questionable offensive line. If Cam Ward is comfy, you’re toast. If he’s under pressure, you still might be toast, but at least he’s unlikely to gash you with a big pass at that point.
How do you see the game going?
Wait – you’re asking me to predict a WSU/Cal football game? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WHAT ARE YOU CRAZY???
Whom do you most want to metaphorically punch in the face?
The ref working the WSU/Colorado soccer game on Thursday night.