Cheez-It Bowl: A Washington State Q&A With Theo Lawson
We learn more about Air Force’s bowl opponent, the Washington State Cougars, with Theo Lawson of the Spokesman-Review.
One of the bowl season’s most fun matchups.
College football’s bowl season is now well underway and the Mountain West’s seven-game slate heads into the back end when the Air Force Falcons and Washington State Cougars face off in the Cheez-It Bowl on Friday, December 27.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find two teams who are more different, especially on offense, which means this year’s iteration of the bowl could be much different, as well. Despite finishing just 6-6, Wazzu will lean hard on what it does best and the Falcons will need to do
Mountain West Wire: The 2019 Cougars may not have received quite the same level of preseason hype as a program like Nebraska, but Washington State began the year ranked in the preseason top 25 and were expected to be a factor in the Pac-12 North. Can you briefly explain how Wazzu instead ended up at 6-6 and how head coach Mike Leach has responded to falling short of those expectations?
Theo Lawson: The Cougars opened the year with three sub-par opponents (NMSU, Northern Colorado, Houston) so the optimism really carried until week four against UCLA, when WSU gave up a 32-lead to lose 67-63 in what was the highest-scoring game in Pac-12 history. That was the first time you could sense the defense would really be a problem for this team and it never improved from there. Two weeks later, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned without much notice and the Cougars lost five of six games between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9. The offense has produced at a high clip all season, but the defense simply hasn’t held up its end of the bargain – the UCLA game being the prime example. Anthony Gordon threw for nine touchdowns, the Cougars scored 63 points … and lost.
MWwire: In a game of such drastic offensive contrasts, one thing that jumps out is that Washington State had the Pac-12’s worst run defense on a per-play basis and currently sits in the bottom five nationally by defensive stuff rate. Linebacker Jahad Woods, with ten tackles for loss, appears to be a standout despite this, but who else in the front seven do you believe has the best chance to have a big impact in disrupting the Air Force ground game and why?
Lawson: Generally, I think the Cougars will struggle mightily against the triple option. Woods is usually reliable and embodies the “Speed D” motto that former DC Alex Grinch introduced years back. But Woods is the only All-Pac-12 performer on this defense, so I hesitate to name anyone else. Dallas Hobbs, a redshirt sophomore nose tackle, is someone who’s progressed quite a bit this season, jumping from second/third on the depth chart to the unquestioned starter at that position.
But, as I alluded to, this is a team that’s struggled against the run, and it’s also one that hasn’t seen anything remotely close to the type of attack they’ll face with Air Force.
MWwire: Washington State also enters the bowl game having given up more 30-yard pass plays than anyone else in the Pac-12 and while Air Force doesn’t throw much, their receivers have generally maximized those limited opportunities all season. Where has that issue come from this fall and who, in particular, might need to have a strong performance to keep the Falcons from exploiting it?
Lawson: The explosive plays – what I’ve been counting as a 20-yard pass or 15-yard run – have definitely been the biggest head-scratcher for the Cougars this season. There’s been a handful of cases where a defensive back just gets beat by a faster wide receiver, but most of the time the explosives have been assignment-based. Mike Leach has called it “playing with eight” – eight defenders doing their job, three of them not. For something that would seem so easy to fix, it’s been a huge problem from really the start of the season all the way through the Apple Cup against Washington. I know Air Force likes to keep the ball for long stretches of time and win the time of possession battle, but there could be some opportunities for quick scoring drives this Friday.
MWwire: What kind of a role does running back Max Borghi play in this year’s iteration of the Air Raid? His rushing numbers (121 attempts, 6.53 YPC) seem like what you’d expect, but it appears noteworthy that he enters the bowl game 12th among all FBS pass catchers with 81 receptions.
Lawson: Leading FBS running backs in receptions is a hallmark of Air Raid running backs and James Williams did it last year with 83 in 13 games. Borghi has soft hands and a special ability to make the first defender miss. He supposedly leads the country with 25 missed tackles forced after the catch, but he’s also more of a traditional running back than some of the others Leach has had in Pullman and someone I think could thrive in an offense that requires him to run the ball 20-plus times. Four 100-yard games in a single season may not seem like much – especially up in Colorado Springs – but Borghi’s the first running back to do it at WSU under Leach and his 6.5 ypc lead the conference.
MWwire: A pass-heavy offense doesn’t work without protection and, with a 2.7% sack rate that ranks second nationally, the Cougars offensive line appear to have that covered in spades. Who is the standout from that unit?
Lawson: There isn’t really a weak link on the offensive line, but right tackle Abraham Lucas is easily the top player and someone who I think will have an opportunity to leave college early after his junior season for the NFL Draft. The Cougars like to recruit tall, quick offensive linemen who can put on weight and shape their bodies once they get on campus. Lucas is listed at 6-foot-7, 256 pounds on his 247Sports.com recruiting profile, but he’s put on about 70 pounds since arriving in Pullman and the Cougars list him at 6-foot-7, 324. Andre Dillard, who was a first-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018, came to WSU at 240 pounds and left at 310. So, if Lucas can follow the Dillard trajectory, he could be one of the top tackles in the country by his senior season. At this rate, though, he may not make it that far.
MWwire: Last year’s Cheez-It Bowl was a messy ode to college football, but this year’s matchup definitely looks like it’ll be miles different. How do you generally expect the game to unfold?
Lawson: I’m fairly confident Air Force will rush for 300 yards or more and I tend to think WSU won’t have too much trouble throwing the ball around the yard in Gordon’s final college game. The Cougars really ought to avoid turnovers in this one against an Air Force team that tries to limit offensive possessions. If they’re successful in that area, I believe they’ll be able to match the Falcons on the scoreboard and this could turn into an 80- or 90-point desert shootout. But, based on the fact the Cougars haven’t beat an opponent with a winning record this season – and 10 wins is nothing to scoff at – I’ll probably choose Air Force when I make my official pick later on in the week.