Sunday, December 21, 2008

Does Past EWU Struggle Offer Hope for WSU?


This just in - it's snowing. Seriously. We're in the Mill Creek area and we must have close to a foot of snow on the ground. I know that's about HALF of what in the Inland Empire residents are dealing with. Heck, a foot of snow is an afternoon in Spokane these days. So wherever you are, keep warm, drive safely, happy holidays, blah blah blah.

I'm happy to report that I made it home on Friday after a week-long business trip down south. Had I tried to fly yesterday? Forget it. At least 50 flights were canceled in and out of Sea-Tac by Alaska Airlines alone, and several reports now say that passengers scheduled to leave Saturday won't be able to leave until Monday at the earliest. Ever try to sleep in an airport? Brutal.

Anywho, since the football news has slowed to a mere trickle - at best - these days, the posting around here has lightened up. No bowl game to hype or over-analyze, so this is a "dead" period of football news. Knowing all that, we'll step outside the box from time to time, just to keep things interesting (or even relevant?). But with the year winding down and recruiting nearing the home stretch, what better time to start thinking about 2009?

Now, sorry, but this isn't any type of full blown 2009 preview. It's simply too early to do something like that, and the reasons are many. We don't know what the recruiting class will officially be until February, and which, if any, new recruits will see the field next year. Maybe there will be some JC guys that Wulff will have designs on redshirting, but will have such an impact in practices that they will force their way into the action? I know it's doubtful, and the strategy of not playing the kids early is what builds depth over the long haul. But will there be newfound pressure to start winning games? Will the pressure cause Wulff to burn a redshirt or two earlier than anticipated?

If you know me from this blog, you know I've been stumping for patience. We all believe there is a real plan in place to turn this sucker around, and they gave us a blip of hope at the end of 2008. But ask yourself this......what if 2009 starts out like most of 2008? What if the improvement shown towards the end of '08 was simply a mirage and things bottom out again early in 2009? Wulff could plan for the future, but he might not be around to enjoy the fruit harvested from the blood, sweat and tears he is pouring into this thing NOW. There will be at least some pressure to start getting positive results on the field, not just what happens off it.

Meanwhile, who among us can honestly say who is going to be the QB next season? Spring ball is going to be very important in trying to figure it all out. And that most important position will likely linger deep into fall camp, given the Lobbestael knee injury and how things progress there. Will young Levenseller tear it up in the spring and cement his spot as the guy? Will Lopina take some big strides? Will Lobbestael make the most of his opportunity in August, coming off the knee injury?

Finally, at last check we don't even have a 2009 SCHEDULE yet! At least it hasn't been finalized, although we hear that is coming soon.

So it's too early to go all crystal ball on things. The race to be first in this information age is filled with inaccuracies and wild predictions, so why not wait to see how things settle before throwing things against the wall? It would all be guesses, at best, right now.

So instead of looking at depth charts from the last month of the season and trying to figure out what we'll look like next September, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and look at coach Wulff's record at EWU, and see if there is anything we can glob onto in regards to what we might look like next year. I'm not exactly talking about personnel, but what types of trends did Wulff have in his full eight seasons at EWU? When you think about it, that's a good chunk of time at any stop in a coaching career. What can we take from his experiences and try to apply to our Cougs in '09?

We all know his record - 54-40, including a 54-30 record against "like" competition (I-AA FCS teams, not FBS - BCS teams). Big Sky coach of the year in 2001, 2004 and 2005. A few league titles, some playoff berths, etc. But we know all that already. What I was looking for was something relevant to what we JUST WENT THROUGH in 2008. Did this same kind of thing happen to Wulff at EWU, where an entire season just went to hell in a handbasket? And if so, how did it happen? And most importantly, what happened the following season?

Guess what? I found something. And that something is 2006, and subsequently what happened in 2007. You know what else? It's pretty promising when you look at the big picture.

First, 2006. EWU was coming off a strong 2005 season, where they tied for the league title at 5-2 in the Big Sky. The offense in 2005 was excellent, averaging 478 yards and 35 points per game, including an amazing 342 yards per game through the air. In fact, the pass in 2005 was so successful that they threw the ball 63.5% of the time, on their way to their second consecutive playoff berth. QB Erik Meyer was fantastic as a senior, winning the Walter Payton Award at QB, otherwise known as the I-AA version of the Heisman Trophy.

Meyer would throw for over 4,000 yards and 30 td's that final year. Yes, things were good in 2005.

But 2006 was another story. Just six offensive starters back on offense, and no experience at QB. The job was given to frosh QB Matt Nichols, who struggled mightily to grasp the new offense. Nichols would complete just 55% of his passes, not too terrible, but with an awful 8 TD/17 INT ratio. The offense overall sputtered to the tune of 310 yards per game, down from the high of 478 the year before, and just 19.5 points per game, down from the 35 points per game in 2005. EWU was throwing it well over 60% of the time for several seasons, but the passing game was so bad that they "dumbed down" the playbook to where they had a 53-47 run/pass ratio. They reeled in the offense behind a young QB trying to figure it out, and they paid the price. Likewise, the team struggled to a 3-8 record, Wulff's first (and only) losing season at EWU. It was a HUGE fall from grace.

Now look at WSU in 2008, and how that team compared to the 2007 version. It's not pretty. You've been warned....

In 2008, the WSU offense returned - you guessed it - six starters. They started over with an almost entirely new coaching staff, but the QB situation was literally ground zero. Gary Rogers was the only QB with any semblance of PT, and he had only attempted 52 passes in his first three seasons.

And here are the numbers. They certainly don't lie, do they?

Points per game: 12.7 in 2008, compared to 25.7 in 2007.
Passing yards per game: 146 yards per game in 2008, compared to (gulp) 319 ypg in 2007!
Rushing yards per game: 95.1 yards per game in 2008, compared to 115.7 ypg in 2007.
Total offense: 241.1 yards per game in 2008, compared to 435.3 ypg in 2007!

Talk about a drop-off. This is like going from Mt. Everest to sea level....or better yet, Husky Stadium.

We don't need to fully rehash 2008, you all lived through it and know what happened. But the fall from offensive excellence was startling...and I didn't even mention the minus-25 turnover ratio, worst in the country. But do you see where I'm going with this?

Now let's look at what happened with EWU in 2007.

First of all, the record. They improved from a 3-8 season in 2006 to 9-4 in 2007. They made it to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, losing on the road to Appalachian State 38-35, a team that would go on to win the whole thing. Just a huge uptick in overall performance.

But the real story is the improvement on offense. In the second year in the system for QB Matt Nichols, the Eagles returned eight starters on O. They improved by over 14 points per game (19.5 to 33.6) and 150 total yards per game (310 to 462), leading the Big Sky in scoring AND total offense! Nichols was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, throwing for an impressive 3700+ yards and a spectacular 34-9 TD/INT ratio. He completed 63.6% of his pass attempts, and hey, he was even the number-two rusher on the team with 392 net yards.

Along with the improved QB play out of Nichols came a much better turnover ratio as well. They were a +2 in their losing season of 2006, but improved to a +12 in 2007. A lot of that improvement can be laid right at the feet of Nichols, who became an outstanding, efficient, effective QB in the Todd Sturdy offense.

So there you have it. Wulff and staff have been through this before. Young QB with very little returning talent after losing an all-time senior QB, dumbing down the playbook, and basically taking major lumps. EWU '06 sounds a heck of a lot like WSU '08. But the best news of all is that it turned around quickly the following season, and in a pretty big way as well.

Wulff has said all along that they believe they will be a much better team in 2009. Key redshirts whom they refused to play in a transition year will now see the field in important areas next year. James Montgomery and Brandon Jones, the transfers from Cal, will see the field and should be a big part of the running game and secondary respectively. The system will have been in place for a complete season, so there shouldn't be nearly the bumps in the road for these guys to figure out what is expected of them under the new regime. They will (hopefully) open up that playbook to the full Todd Sturdy offense, something we are all still dying to see for a full season. The QB's, whoever it turns out to be, will have a base of experience to build from the 2008 season, no matter how limited that time might have been. And most of all, the players will now know what it will take to succeed in the program under Wulff's system. From spring practices to fall camp, to the weight room, training table and classroom, there are no more uncertainties or unknowns. Everyone is accountable, and they know what is expected by their coaches.

So what do YOU think about all this? Will we see a strong turnaround in year two? There is at least something to look back at in regards to Wulff, and how his team has responded to a terrible, lesson-learning season. Will we see the improvement we are hoping for? Was the end of 2008 something to believe in?

That's about it for today. ENJOY THE REST OF YOUR WEEKEND, and most of all, GO COUGS!

8 comments:

Stiffmiester said...

Sedi,
I misstated in the earlier post about Taumeolua. His official visit is Jan. 16. We did get another CB from Senna Cali. in a kid named Carpenter. Has anyone heard anything on Baby Tru?

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LouisianaCoug said...

Surely, 2008 was an overall dismal season. But need we not forget, this is Washington State. As far as I am concerned, we measure success in terms of bowl games/Apple Cup victories. In my opinion, the two can be interchanged.

So realistically, it would be great to go 3-9 to 5-7ish and grab another Apple Cup victory (too optimistic?, I'm not sure).

Look, if Wulff is the long term solution, which I desperately am praying/starting to believe he is, then let's not get ridiculous. This team is not going to turn around overnight and finish 8-4. But it sure would be nice to be competitive every week (besides SC) and snag another victory over Washington in 2009.

Go Cougs.

BornCoug said...

I see the team significantly better but I don't know if it will show in the w/l column. The offense should get better in every single unit. Even receiver could end up stronger even though they lose Gibson. However, will we see enough at QB for the offense to show some consistency? The Lobbestaehl injury really hurt for next year. I'm simply not sure how good Levenseller is at this point.

On defense, we all know d-tackle is still in the building phase. Without one or two JCs to go along with JC Luapo coming in and they could be in trouble. They have to replace Trent at MLB and need to get a lot better in the secondary.

They will improve but I think we are in for another long season where we are just hoping to get on to next year. I think year 3 is really the year where things start to turn around on the field.

Sedihawk said...

I don't want to give off the impression that I think we're going to see a huge leap in '09, at least not like EWU had! Many of us are on the same page, in that we will see a better product, and the plan is in motion. I am with all of you though in that we likely won't see the improvement in pure W/L standards, but they will be considerably more competitive.

What I was after here was to point out that Wulff did in fact have a "bottom out" season at EWU, where everything went bad and they reeled in the entire offense based on their personnel. But it was only a one-year downturn, and once their youth got experience, it changed in a hurry.

The biggest flaw in my little deal is the QB spot. In that lousy year of '06, Matt Nichols still attempted 259 passes as a frosh and learned those seriously tough lessons. Lobbestael threw less than half that amount (103), and Levy even less (34). Losing Lobbestael to the knee and then not getting JT enough PT will be the biggest thing that will hurt our chances for '09.

But what are the alternatives? Lopina? Good kid, leader in the lockerroom, made a big play in the Apple cup....but he's not the answer here. It's got to be one of the young guys next year if we have hope for a real breakthrough in 2010.

Hey, it finally stopped snowing!

Brian from Portland said...

Can we get a story about the girls complete with lot of photos please?

Thanks,

Signed - Snowed in in Portland!

Anonymous said...

The girls are choose your own adventure...

ptowncoug said...

Again, I harken back to the decision not to play JT against SC. The kid is going to have to do it sometime and not to play him and rather run the ball 98% of the time with Lopina was pure absurdity.
That game continues to irk me like no other. It will be a game that I will remember forever and tell my grandchildren about.
Hopefully that will be a character building game like the D. Bennett Ok St game.
To summarize this post due to going off on a tangent, the only way to get experience is to play.