PULLMAN — If it wasn’t already obvious based on who was playing where during Washington State’s preseason football camp, it’s rather clear now that the Cougars won’t rely this season on nearly as many freshmen as they did in 2012.
Seventeen such players (redshirt freshmen included) saw the field last season. That number finds its way into Mike Leach’s mouth on a regular basis, typically as a reference point when evaluating WSU’s growth in a number of areas.
Four true freshmen have played this season, with safety Isaac Dotson and offensive lineman Riley Sorenson making their collegiate debuts in the second half of WSU’s 48-10 victory over Southern Utah last week.
Because that game was in hand for the entire fourth quarter, it stands to reason that any healthy players the Cougars plan to use this season would have been put in the game. So barring unforeseen circumstances, it appears WSU will go forward with just those four true freshmen – receiver River Cracraft and cornerback Daquawn Brown were the first two – along with four or five second-year players who redshirted last season.
Those younger players, particularly Dotson and Sorenson, could see more playing time tonight at 7:30 against Idaho, a team the Cougars should handle in the same fashion they did Southern Utah.
WSU (2-1) opened as a 32-point favorite against the Vandals (0-3), who have lost nine consecutive games and 24 out of 27 since the beginning of the 2011 season.
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske said Dotson, who came to WSU as a quarterback but switched to defense early in camp, could see the field again tonight.
“We’ll pick and choose opportunities for him, but I want to get him reps this weekend,” Breske said. “I think he got 13 last week. Where that number is (this week), I can’t tell you that right now. Just kind of get a feel for what happens. But we’ve got to get him in the ballgame.”
It seemed a surprise to some that Sorenson, a freshman from Santa Margarita, Calif., made his debut so late in such an inconsequential setting. But if offensive line coach Clay McGuire believes Sorenson is one of the team’s eight best linemen, he’s going to play.
“We’ve said all along, he’s in our top eight,” McGuire said. “It’s just a situation where at some point last year we needed a guy that we just didn’t have, and there will be situations this year where he’s going to have to play, and it was a great opportunity to get him in there, get him some reps and all that good stuff.”
One redshirt freshman who might see a little more playing time this week is Austin Apodaca, a backup quarterback who made his debut against Southern Utah. Apodaca played in each of the Cougars’ first three games as the holder for kicks but got in at quarterback in the fourth quarter after WSU took a 38-point lead.
If all goes according to plan – that is, if the Cougars score a bunch of points while allowing far fewer to be scored by Idaho – Apodaca could get a chance to improve on his 3-for-7 passing debut.
“He does really good in practice,” Leach said. “He just needs to go in there and get enough plays so he can show what he can do.”
IDAHO (0-3) AT WASHINGTON STATE (2-1)
7:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 770-AM.
The series: WSU leads, 70-17-3, and has won the past seven meetings. The Cougars are 38-8-3 at home in the series – including a 45-28 victory in 2007, the last meeting between the teams. Idaho’s last win in the series was a 38-34 victory in 2000 at WSU.
KEYS TO A WSU VICTORY
No slugs: More than one Washington State coach said the Cougars’ defense started a little sluggish last week against Southern Utah before awakening in the second half and shutting things down. Idaho showed enough offensive acumen against Northern Illinois last week that WSU could struggle a bit if the Vandals get in rhythm. The Cougars need to be attentive and physical from the start.
Force turnovers: Idaho quarterback Chad Chalich is a freshman who hasn’t thrown an interception. But he has fumbled a couple times, and the Vandals’ ball control will have to be perfect if they hope to upset WSU. The Cougars have thrived off turnovers in both their victories – they forced five the past two weeks – and a few more Saturday would all but assure another win.
Run the ball: WSU’s running game appeared rejuvenated in its season opener against Auburn, where the Cougars totaled 120 yards on the ground. But they haven’t come close to that mark in either of their past two games. That’s not necessarily a terrible sign – they threw the ball so well against Southern Utah that no ground attack was needed – but it would be beneficial for future purposes if they run it a little better against an overmatched Idaho team.
Keep up: Idaho figures to snap the ball a lot more than Southern Utah did, so the Cougars must be prepared to keep up with coach Paul Petrino’s up-tempo offense. They already saw a fast offense this season at Auburn, and WSU coaches noted afterward that players were well-conditioned enough that none of them cramped up. A few three-and-outs would help Saturday.Christian Caple, The Spokesman-Review