Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with CougCenter

Stephen Dunn

We asked Jeff Nusser over at SB Nation's CougCenter for his insight and analysis in advance of the Pac-12 opener between USC and Washington State.

1. Conquest Chronicles: The Cougars passed the football at an extremely high rate last week, and look to do the same for most of the season. How will they adjust and prepare for the powerful USC pass rush?

Jeff Nusser: I don't think they'll adjust initially. The offensive line was a huge problem last year -- as it was for the four years before that -- but it was clear in last week's game that the unit has made some major strides in the offseason. The linemen are bigger and more physical, and they handled many of the blitzes and stunts that gave them so much trouble last season. But the Tigers are less talented than the Trojans on the defensive line. My guess is you'll see the Cougars come out in their typical four-wide alignment, but if USC is generating too much pressure, you'll see some two-back alignments with one running back staying in to pass protect. But that certainly won't be Mike Leach's first option.

2. CC: Connor Halliday, while an improved passer, has struggled with INT's throughout his career. What can the Cougars do on offense to simplify the game for him, or is that not part of the offense?

JN: That's the thing about the Air Raid: The offense already is simple. Where Halliday gets himself into trouble is he makes it unsimple (for lack of a better term). His first interception on Saturday was the sort of interception you live with -- he either threw it a little behind the receiver, or the receiver didn't settle into the hole where Halliday thought he would. No big deal. But the other ones? He was trying to play hero ball (again) and got himself into trouble. At some point, he just has to make the choice that he's not going to make those throws. Or he's going to get benched again, as he did last year.

3. Last week, the Tigers ran all over the defense with power running so who up the middle needs to step up and close down the fort?

The middle wasn't the issue for WSU. In fact, the middle was quite stout, led by nose tackle Junior Gauta. The edges are where WSU had their biggest issues, as the lateral speed just isn't there yet on this team. USC has superlative athletes, just like Auburn, and while the Trojans are unlikely to to be able to just run down WSU's collective throat, they could experience some success if they can get wide against the Cougars.

4. Does Mike Leach have any tricks up his sleeve when his Cougars head into Los Angeles this weekend? (Like big weapons, trick plays, different formations, going on 4th down, etc.)

Well, the Cougs are going to pass, pass, pass, and they're going to be as aggressive they can be. That means they'll use all four downs when it's reasonable. The only real trick he's likely got up his sleeve is somehow tricking Halliday into not forcing the ball into no-chance windows.

5. The Cougars have not defeated USC since 2002, but are also playing them for the first time in the new-look Pac-12 alignment. What type of confidence does WSU have (given USC QB troubles and WSU offensive success) about winning this match up to start Pac-12 play?

These players have been adamant that they are a different breed than WSU teams of the past, to the point that it's pretty clear this is the message they're receiving behind closed doors. Just listen to Halliday at his press conference earlier this week. It makes sense - Leach often lamented last year that they were a lot closer than most of the players realized, and he said that their poor attitude had as much to do with their losing ways as their talent. This team obviously worked crazy hard in the offseason -- their conditioning in the sweltering humidity of the deep south was off the charts -- and they seem to believe in themselves more than previous editions. They were legitimately pissed off that they had let the Auburn game slip away. I don't know if this new found confidence necessarily translates into a win, but they'll certainly walk into the coliseum believing that they can win. I don't think they'll be intimidated. Only one of these guys (Deone Bucannon) played against USC in 2010, and I think that'll help, too.

For more USC-Washington State game coverage, be sure to follow along here at Conquest Chronicles and check out CougCenter here and on Twitter: @CougCenter.

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