And in that corner… the Washington State Cougars


It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know
the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal,
63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable
injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all
played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has
been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But
the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation
when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a
weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go
wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge
blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002,
WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the
conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s
tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what
happened next – Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still
unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide…..but the problem was leaving
the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down,
Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and
Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human
being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the
head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal
issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had
been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man
to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to
really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting
targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8
scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25
arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So
back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left
in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate
the backstory of Paul Wulff.
He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late
80’s.  He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and
was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw
talent.  He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many
believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU.  H
has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age
to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day
he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his
life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable
amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at
a fairly young age.

Wulff is regarded as a man of high character,
and he has gone to great lengths to 
install  a tough, structured, disciplined
program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players
are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good
recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of
building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can
put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason
play on a yearly basis.

That said, there is a contingent that believes
this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was
successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a few
  conference titles as well as coach of the
year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the
BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been
absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.

Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated
on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff should
shoulder much of
the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final
stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of
Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to
help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10. 
Go to for more!  Operators are standing by.  :) 
But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the
losses on the field
with a brutal economy 
haven’t exactly helped the fundraising
cause off the field.

The true measure of Wulff will be what the team
does in 2011. By then, his first two
 recruiting classes will be
upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach.
But we just aren’t there yet.

ITI: The Irish have done a very nice job
making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same?
What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?

SH: Jeff
Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at
QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with
an impressive combo of mobility and a
strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and
combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by
the end of September.

As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still
hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs.
USC, 2) a di
sasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make
it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and
finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with
two Td’s and zero turnovers.

A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some
major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up
front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal
last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven
Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able
to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the
ball to the right players at the right time.

As to his weapons, well,
they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong
sophomore we
hope will turn
Jeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino
Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging
one  of
Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada
who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target.
He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous
68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of
wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.

Is this game a
big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the
needle for fans and players or is this just another game?

SH: Absolutely
moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV
against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest
to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will
definitely be JACKED for this one!

ITI: If you were playing the probability
game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner?

SH: Slim to none. Sure,
it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year
(sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend
to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more
times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too

ITI: What’s the recipe for an upset?

SH: Turnovers and a fast start
would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the
takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in
interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one
they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first
quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to
when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona
, 11/8/08).

think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two
early, combined with some Irish mistakes
  giving WSU some confidence. And Notre
Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year
olds are going to do on a weekly basis. 
It’s probably easy to
Notre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate… I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”