Describing last season's Washington State football team is pretty easy. A great offense, bad everything else. Mike Leach took that to heart and hired Alex Grinch as new defensive coordinator and promoted Eric Mele to special teams coach. If those two can bring any life to their units, the 2015 Cougars just might be a good team.
The Cougars are going to have a good offense. Leach and his Air Raid system are always good. But as 2014 demonstrated, the offense can't do everything. Leach brought in the new coaches to address the problems from last season and on Saturday they will have the chance to show they are up to the challenge.
The defense will be similar to last years, but with key changes. Grinch has brought in a hybrid 3-4 scheme with a fulltime nickel back and a "rush" linebacker. His system is designed to pressure the quarterback and get turnovers. Mele has had almost a full year to sort out the special teams problems, and speedsters Kyrin Priester and Tavares Martin should help with the kick and punt returns.
Portland State at Washington State, Sept. 5th, Martin Stadium, Pullman Washington.
This game marks the start of the season for both teams. Portland State "interim" head coach Bruce Barnum is already on the hot seat. He was Nigel Burton's offensive coordinator for the last few years and when Burton was fired last November Barnum was named interim head coach. So he is basically on a one-year tryout for the permanent head coaching position. With the interim tag, he must feel that every game is a must-win situation in order for him to earn a new contract.
On the Washington State side, this game serves as a way to forget a dismal 2014 season that saw them regress to a 3-9 record. Head coach Mike Leach isn't yet on the hot seat in Pullman, but he is definitely feeling a little warm. Washington State must start the season well in order to get a bowl game berth.
With a much more talented roster, Washington State should run away with this game.
Portland State doesn't have an official head coach. They have an interim head coach. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum was named head coach last November, with a one-year deal and the "interim" tag. He has to succeed in 2015, and that makes him, and his team, desperate. Desperate teams are dangerous teams.
The Vikings almost beat Oregon State in the 2014 opener. They led 14-13 at halftime, but ended up losing 29-14 in the second half. They are capable of keeping up with WSU.
Portland State runs a West Coast style offense with elements of the pistol. While they have rushed for over 2,000 yards in each of the last five seasons, this year they are dominated by quarterbacks.
Barnum has benched former starting quarterback Kieran McDonagh, even though he has started 29 games and is 5th all-time in total offense at PSU. The starting job has been given to JC transfer Alex Kuresa, who had a scholarship to BYU before ending up in the JC ranks. He is very athletic and a threat to run or pass.
PSU also has junior Paris Penn, who rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State last year. Barnum has labeled Penn his "utility quarterback" and he is expected to play a role in the offense this season. Barnum may play all three quarterbacks, substituting them in order to surprise the Cougar defense.
The Game Plan
This game is basically a warm-up for the Cougars. Expect them to stick to the basics, play their game and save anything special for later in the season. Offensively, they will score a lot of points while running their base offense. They will be able to do what they want, when they want offensively.
Defense is where the mystery is for the Cougars. Grinch wants his players to fly to the ball, play fast and get turnovers. He will try to pressure the PSU quarterbacks and contain their runs. Not much is known about the Cougar defense yet so this game will be a preview of what is to come in the future.
On the Portland State side of the ball, expect them to have a balanced attack with effective rushing by both the running backs and the quarterbacks. This is a team with nothing to lose and a lot to gain so expect them to pull out all the stops and run a lot of trick plays.
Defensively they won't be able to stop the Cougars from moving the ball. But they will try to pressure sophomore Cougar quarterback Luke Falk into making some mistakes and slowing down the Cougar offense. The experienced Cougar offensive line should be able to handle the pressure and allow Falk time to make plays.
This should be a fun game to watch, with an overmatched Viking team blitzing and running multiple trick plays, but in the end the Cougars should prevail.
Players to watch
The quarterbacks on both teams. Washington State's Luke Falk has only started three games and the Vikings are going to be hell-bent to get pressure on him. He must handle the pressure and play well for the Cougars.
Portland State quarterback Alex Kuresa has never faced pressure like a Pac-12 team will apply to him. He must play well in his first start. Paris Penn, the "utility quarterback", may also play a big role in this game.
Portland State puts up a good fight for most of the first half, but then the Cougars wake up and pour on the points. It ends up WSU 49-14.