Tim Healey: Cougin' It!
Oct. 19, 2000
The head coach of the Washington State Cougars has come up with a phrase he uses to describe his players or teams that are able to perform well in the face of adversity. In the world according to Mike Price, those who overcome obstacles are 'Cougin' It.'
Pardon your French, Mike, but here's hoping the Arizona State Sun Devils are able to 'Coug It' this weekend in Pullman.
As we've chronicled numerous times, the 2000 Sun Devils have been confronted with adversity since the beginning of fall camp, so why should this weekend's trip to Washington State be any different? Coming off a gut-wrenching 21-15 loss to the Washington Huskies last weekend in Tempe, the Devils now face the task of bouncing back from that defeat on the road, in the most remote and meteorologically-challenged locale in the Pac-10, on a new and different kind of artificial turf, against the top scoring team in the conference, quarterbacked by perhaps the best young signal-caller in the league. Other than that, this game should be a piece of cake!
Let's examine, point by point.
First off, I get the sense that the Sun Devils will end up being a pretty decent road football team in 2000. So far this year, they've split their two out-of-town games, winning at San Diego State and losing at UCLA (after leading 21-0 in the second quarter). Except for the third-quarter meltdown against the Bruins, ASU has looked poised and confident in their road games, much in keeping with one of coach Bruce Snyder's mottos: 'ITCOB' (meaning 'I Take Care of Business'). That's a sign of the focus and mental toughness this team seems to display week in and week out. Wearing the white jerseys won't rattle these guys Saturday in Pullman.
Speaking of which, the weatherman is calling for mostly cloudy skies, a chance of showers, and temperatures around 50 degrees for Saturday's game. It's certainly a far cry from what we're accustomed to in Arizona this time of year, but as a native of the East Coast, it's what I would call terrific football weather (provided, of course, the rain never materializes!) If, indeed, it stays dry, the weather should not be a factor. Chilly? Yes. Unplayable? Hardly. And, while some may say Pullman is a place where 'you can't get there from here,' the ASU party will charter its way into a small airport in nearby Lewiston, ID. (and the famous runway on the cliff!) and then bus the 35 miles or so to the Pullman-Moscow area (the Devils will actually spend the night at a hotel in Moscow, ID., eight miles from Pullman, and home of the University of Idaho Vandals), so this trip figures to pose no logistical problems. Also, from the 'whatever it's worth' department (or is it the 'in my humble opinion' department?), the Washington State campus happens to be one of the most scenic in the Pac-10.
The new turf at WSU's Martin Stadium is known as 'FieldTurf,' a surface that's said to look and feel very much like real grass. In fact, as they prepared for the Washington State game this week, the Sun Devils didn't even practice on their new artificial turf practice field in Tempe, because they figured the green grass of the Bill Kajikawa Practice Field would give them a better sense of what they'll encounter at Washington State. The Devils will also have the benefit of a Friday walkthrough in Pullman, during which they can get a 'feel' for this 'FieldTurf,' as well as determine which type of shoes will work best on this particular surface. In a phone conversation with me earlier this week, Mike Price raved about his stadium's new playing surface, and promised that the Sun Devils will enjoy playing on the 'FieldTurf.'
Now to some of the more pertinent particulars regarding this Devils-Cougars match up. Washington State averages a Pac-10-best 32 points per game on the season, under the direction of sophomore quarterback Jason Gesser, a native Hawaiian who doesn't fit the mold of recent Cougar greats Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe. While those two current NFL signal-callers are tall, strong-armed pocket passers, Gesser is smaller (6'1'), more mobile and more athletic. He doesn't run the ball that much, but instead uses his escapability to buy time to find an open receiver.
Gesser is the top-rated passer in the Pac-10 (sixth in the nation in passing efficiency), and leads the conference with 15 touchdown passes and 256 total yards per game. Gesser's targets include a fleet of tall receivers: 6'3' junior Milton Wynn leads WSU with 32 receptions (five for touchdowns), 6'5' senior Marcus Williams has caught 19 passes, while 6'2' JC transfer Nakoa McElrath tied a school record last week with three TD receptions in the Cougars' 53-47 triple overtime loss to Arizona (incidentally, Gesser set a WSU record in that game with 6 TD passes).
It's not all about the pass at Washington State. The Cougars have two fine running backs in JC transfer Dave Minnich (a 25-year-old who spent four years in the Marines) and sophomore Deon Burnett, who gained a career-best 136 yards against Arizona State last year en route to a WSU freshman-record total of 974 yards. The Achilles heel of the Cougar offense would appear to be the offensive line: senior guard Ryan Raymond was diagnosed this week with a congenital defect in his spine, ending his football career. Consequently, WSU's starting offensive line Saturday will feature two freshmen and three sophomores.
The outcome of the ASU-WSU contest will hinge largely on who wins the match up of strength versus strength: the Cougar offense or the Sun Devils' defense that was so outstanding in the loss to the Huskies last week. With their many varied blitzing schemes, it's not hard to envision Phil Snow's defense exasperating Washington State's youthful offensive line. Then again, the Arizona Wildcats sported the Pac-10's top defense entering last week's action, and WSU lit up the Cats for 47 points. The key, it seems, will be how well the Devils are able to contain Gesser, and limit his improvisational skills. If they can do a number on him like they did to Washington's Marques Tuiasosopo last week, it would give the Sun Devils a huge advantage. At any rate, you can always figure on ASU's defense to fly to the football and deliver the hits that keep on coming!
On the other side of the ball, the Devils' offense endured a frustratingly ineffective evening against the Huskies, but here are a couple of things to think about. First, Washington State's defense is dead last in the Pac-10 in virtually every meaningful team category. Second, unlike last week, ASU QB Jeff Krohn has had a full week of practice work and has regained much of his strength and timing after a two-week bout with mononucleosis. I would expect him to be much sharper against the Cougars than he was versus the Huskies. In addition, don't be surprised if offensive coordinator John Pettas moves Krohn around in the pocket or designs plays that free Jeff up to carry the ball himself, to capitalize on the freshman's mobility. Besides Krohn, junior tailback Davaren Hightower is back to near full strength, and may well start in Pullman. I'll be extremely disappointed and surprised if the offense doesn't play significantly better this week.
All things considered, it'll be a very interesting weekend in the Palouse: good football weather, two young and pretty decent teams, each battling to continue a season-long trend of improvement they hope will get them in a bowl game. All that's left to do now is to go and 'Coug It!'
Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU football for the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.