Cal Football: Washington State Writer Answers Five Questions About the Cougars

Jake Curtis

Theo Lawson covers Washington State for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and he was kind enough to answer our five questions about the eighth-ranked Cougars, who play Cal on Saturday night in Pullman, Wash.

Here are his answers:

---1. Does Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew deserve to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion, and does he have a chance to finish in the top five in the Heisman voting?

If the voting ended today, I certainly think Minshew's there. Washington State quarterbacks regularly lead the nation in passing, or are near the top, but few of them have been as clutch in late-game situations like Minshew, and none of them has quarterbacked a 7-1 team that's been No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be able to sustain what he's done to this point, but the Cougars -- and their QBs -- have struggled mightily in the Apple Cup [vs. Washington] and I imagine plenty of Heisman voters will have eyes on that game, being that it'll take place on a Friday and presumably feature two Top 25 teams. Minshew could have his "Heisman moment" against UW, or if things go like they have against the Huskies the last four years, fall out of the conversation entirely.

---2. We hear a lot about the Cougars’ offense, but the Washington State defense has good numbers. How good is the Washington State defense and what are its strengths?

The defense deserves as much praise as the offense, in my opinion. The Cougars have been scoring points since Mike Leach arrived in Pullman, but they weren't in the picture for Pac-12 North titles until about three years ago -- not by coincidence, the same time the defense began making strides under [then-offensive coordinator] Alex Grinch. Though Grinch left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, WSU retained many of his principles and concepts. The Cougars don't have a ton of size on defense, but they have plenty of speed (Grinch's "Speed D" mantra took on a life of its own while he was here) and they're often able to confuse offenses with pre-snap movement on the defensive line. Most of us are still trying to wrap our heads around how the Cougars have 22 sacks with three first-year starters on the defensive line, including a nose tackle who wasn't put on scholarship until May.

---3. How much of an advantage does Washington State have playing at home, and does Cal have a chance on Saturday after beating the Cougars last year in Berkeley?

Martin Stadium has been one of the toughest venues to play in these last few years. I've covered this team since the start of the 2017 season (11 home games during that stretch) and still haven't seen the Cougars lose there. It's the smallest venue in the Pac-12 capacity-wise, so it doesn't take much to fill it up, and, well, Pullman isn't exactly a bustling metropolis, so there aren't too many entertainment options for WSU students on a Saturday night. Martin Stadium gets loud and rowdy and opponents always seem to draw false-start penalties. I believe an Oregon player attributed that to the crowd noise a few weeks back. That said, Cal's shocked WSU before and the Cougars are 0-2 in their last two games against [Cal offensive coordinator] Beau Baldwin, who orchestrated a 45-42 win over them in 2016 while he was head coach of Eastern Washington.

---4. How surprising is Washington State’s success this season, given it was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North?

Let's put it this way: I picked the Cougars to go 6-6 this season, and most thought that was too optimistic of a prediction. It was a long offseason for WSU. Grinch left for OSU, Hercules Mata'afa declared for the NFL Draft, Leach flirted with the vacant Tennessee job and the Cougars tragically lost Tyler Hilinski, who was presumed to be their starting QB before he committed suicide in January. Minshew was a completely unknown commodity and nobody could've predicted the success he's had given what he did at East Carolina. How the Cougars would fare with a new defensive coordinator [Tracy Claeys] and five new position coaches was also a pretty important question. The offensive line lost three starters, including an All-American left guard and a right tackle who was picked in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, yet somehow that unit's managed to improve quite measurably. Most WSU fans would've been ecstatic if you'd said this team would win seven games. Now the Cougars have a realistic shot at 10 or 11.

---5. What is the funniest thing Mike Leach has said this season?

There's plenty of choices, but I enjoyed this snippet from Monday's news conference about a Halloween store in Pullman.

"The ironic thing is, there's stripper costumes in there. I didn't even know you needed a costume to be a stripper and yet they have them hanging right there on the racks."