2004 can fairly be called a rebuilding year for WSU given that so many players graduated from the strong 2003 team that won the Holiday Bowl in impressive fashion over Texas. Still, it was a season of frustration. There was inexperience at a number of key positions. The running game - expected to be a strength - did not show life until the second half of the season. There were a number of injuries to starters and key depth players. The 2004 Cougars could arguably have overcome any one or even two of those three problems to end up in a bowl last season, but all three together proved too much for a very young team. The final record of 5-6 could easily have been 6-5, 7-4, or even 8-3.
The Cougars have waited since last November to take the field and hit somebody in a different uniform. The 2005 team is still young overall, but the inexperience of last year returns as seasoned starters and depth. The table is set to begin the 2005 season strong with a non-conference schedule featuring Idaho, Nevada, and Grambling. On Thursday night, the Vandals will be the first test for the team. The game is important because how the Cougars perform against Idaho could set the tone for the rest of the season. Some rust is to be expected, but the Cougars should - repeat, should - perform well against an Idaho team that struggled last year. The game will be broadcast on Fox with the kickoff at 7:00 p.m. Pacific time, so set your schedule appropriately if you can't be in Pullman. Here are CougZone's Keys to the Game:
1) Stay Healthy: It seems like every August the Cougars start the season with injuries to some key players, and this year is no different. D-tackle Ropati Pitoitua - expected to be an anchor on the line - is out for half the season. Running back, depleted by the absence of Kevin McCall, is thin with true freshman DeMaundray Woolridge expected to get substantial game time. Possibly the best returning defensive back, free safety Husain Abdullah, is limited. At this point, the Cougars can not afford to lose any more starters or depth players to injury. The Cougs go into this game a little dinged up and must come out with starters and #2's intact.
2) Show Well on the Defensive Front: The loss of Pitoitua is a blow to a D-line that needs to be much improved this season. Last season, the line failed for the most part to get penetration against opponents. The result was the defensive secondary being too often picked apart by quarterbacks with too much time to throw. The Cougar defensive secondary faces a learning curve this season and is perceived as a weak unit on the team. They can expect Idaho and other teams to test them early and often. If the defensive line can create pressure without the need for blitzing, the secondary's job will become much, much easier. Along with shutting down the Vandal offense, a strong performance by the D-line may give both the WSU front four and defensive backs a much needed base of experience and confidence that could be built on for the balance of the schedule.
3) Execute: This year's offense has many potential weapons. No matter who ends up taking the snaps this year - Alex Brink or Josh Swogger - WSU returns talent and experience at quarterback. Running back Jerome Harrison could well be one of the top backs in the conference. The Cougar quarterbacks have excellent and proven targets in Troy Bienemann, Jason Hill, and Michael Bumpus. The line brings in four players with starting experience, albeit not necessarily in the same positions as last season. The table appears set for the Cougs to move the ball against anybody and score plenty of points. Executing the offense smoothly against Idaho will not only result in a win for WSU, it should lay the groundwork for the rest of the year.