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Behind Enemy Lines: A Q&A with CougCenter

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Tonight, UCLA plays the Washington State Cougars. The guys over at CougCenter answered some of our questions about Wazzu.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Miami vs Washington State
Shalom Luoni is one of the Cougars to keep an eye on when UCLA has the ball.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In order to learn some more about this week’s opponents, the Washington State Cougars, we asked the guys over at CougCenter.com, SB Nation’s Washington State community, about their team.

Thanks to Michael Preston and Jeff Nusser from CougCenter for answering our questions!

BN: What is the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?

Michael Preston: The production running the football. The raw yardage amount doesn’t look like much but that’s not what’s important in this offense. The threat of a rushing attack is needed to keep defenders honest and at nearly 5 yards per carry from the running backs (a three-headed monster of Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James “BOOBIE” Williams), it’s making the offense more productive and taking some of the pressure off Luke Falk and his receivers.

Plus, it’s super fun to yell BOOBIE when he picks up a ton of yards.

Jeff Nusser: The funny thing is that the team is actually more similar to than different from last year’s squad. They exhibit a lot of the same characteristics -- chief among them, toughness and resiliency. That’s what allowed them to come back from a season-opening FCS loss last year, and it’s what is allowing them to do it again this year. That said, it’s not just all about their guts. This team sure looks like it’s just better than last season, and the running game is a big reason why.

BN: At the beginning of the season, Washington State lost to Eastern Washington and Boise State, but since then, they’ve defeated both Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks. What has changed from the start of the season till now?

Preston: A few things but most noticeably is that Luke Falk is back to late season Luke Falk. At the start of the year, he was really only looking for wide open receivers and generally being indecisive. Starting in the second half against Idaho, he started making the throws he needs to in this offense to be productive and it all came to a head last week against Stanford. Outside of two really bad throws for picks, he put on a great performance, dropping passes into extraordinarily tight windows and keeping the offense on the move.

Nusser: On the other side of the ball, the defensive line has done a complete 180 with regards to controlling the line of scrimmage, particularly when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback. Some very productive players on the defensive line graduated after last season, and early on, our worst fears seemed to be realized as EWU passed up and down the field at will. Boise State wasn’t a whole lot better. But the corner started to be turned against Idaho, and the heat went all the way up against Oregon and Stanford -- the Cougs racked up five sacks on 61 dropbacks in those two games. That’s made a world of difference.

BN: How will the suspension of Logan Tago affect the Cougar defense?

Preston: Tago had been starting at the RUSH linebacker spot along with junior Dylan Hanser so it’s a big hit to the depth at that position. Tago is a talented pass rusher so Hanser will have to step up to take a good deal of snaps. Our own Britton Ransford notes redshirt freshman Nnamdi Oguayo will likely slide over to RUSH from tackle to fill in for Tago until he gets his case sorted out but when that will be is anyone’s guess.

Nusser: It’s a bit of a hit, but it’s hard to imagine it will be devastating since he’s been in a pretty even timeshare with Hanser. He’s definitely been the preferred pass rusher of the two, so yeah - either Hanser is going to have to step way up, or (more likely) defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will be looking to someone else to fill the Tago’s role on passing downs.

BN: Who is the one guy on offense that Bruin fans should be worried about?

Preston: Lots and lots to choose from here but I’ll go with wide receiver River Cracraft. He finally broke out of his early season lull last week against Stanford and is Falk’s go-to guy on third down again. Every single one of his catches went for a 1st down or TD last week, including something like four on third down.

Nusser: You already know about Gabe Marks, who caught the game-winning touchdown last season. He’s a Biletnikoff Aaward candidate, but he actually hasn’t had that impressive of a season ... which means he’s due for a huge game at some point. Teams have been rolling two and three guys his direction on virtually every snap where he runs a downfield route. Will UCLA do the same? Or will the Bruins give him some space to allow Luke Falk to Throw It Up To 9?

(Also, he’s really, really funny.)

BN: And, conversely, who is the guy on defense that could prove to be most disruptive to UCLA’s anemic offense?

Preston: Say it with me: HERC-YOU-LEES MAH-TUH-AH-FUH. He has been buying real estate in opposing backfields since coming off his redshirt and after a slow start to the season, he’s back to his old self. Do not let Mata’afa’s 6’2”, 252 pound frame at tackle fool you, he is violent with his hands and spent the game against Oregon literally shoving lineman 5 yards backwards. The last time WSU had a lineman this dominant was Mkristo Bruce (though Travis Long was excellent despite virtually no help along the line), making the loss of Destiny Vaeao and Darryl Paulo to graduation a little easier to deal with.

Nusser: WSU’s all-conference-candidate safety Shalom Luani has moved down to nickel back in recent weeks, and it’s been a boon for the defense. It’s not the typical nickel position you see in the NFL; it’s more like the Moneybacker position you see there, which was pioneered by former Wazzu safety Deone Bucannon. Luani will come up repeatedly in run support, and his ability to diagnose and disrupt running plays has been incredible. He’s also adequate in coverage, so look for Grinch to use him creatively.

BN: Cougar coach Mike Leach is famous for going off on tangents about just about any topic during interviews. What is your favorite Mike Leach interview tangent?

Preston: I’ll be Debbie Downer here: they’re getting old at this point. I know everyone else in the conference loves them because you only have to hear about them one week a year but I’d love to just hear him talk about football. He’s excellent when he does that and I’m always interested in those interviews, especially one he gave to John Clayton on a Seattle sports talk station last week. Just 15 minutes straight of football. Wonderful.

But there was one time he talked about his walk from his house to his office and trekking through a garbanzo bean field and a cemetery. That was funny.

Nusser: These tangents are a lot funnier when the team’s winning, I’ll tell you that. There was that time last year where Todd Graham said everyone stole his sideline signals, and when WSU had a big second quarter against the Sun Devils, Leach said the Cougs didn’t change anything, “except for all the calls we stole from Arizona State.” It was a pretty damn funny deadpan.

Thanks again to Michael and Jeff. If you want to find out more about the Cougars, give their site a visit. I think you’ll find it amusing. I sure do.

Go Bruins!!!