The Cougars have learned from previous mistakes. They're not going to overlook Montana State.
The Washington State football team has heard all the snickers and snide comments about their – shhh – opening game losing streak.
Mike Leach can’t seem to get the team prepared to start the season.
The Cougars can’t win a season opener.
WSU can’t beat FCS teams.
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Yes, the Cougars are 0-5 in season opening games in Leach’s tenure, and yes, the “5” in the losing column includes two-straight defeats to FCS teams – Portland State in 2015, Eastern Washington in 2016 – though, to be fair, it also includes a respectable 31-24 defeat at Auburn in 2013.
These Cougars have had months to stew over the disappointing way they ended last season – three-straight losses, including one to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl – and the way they started 2016 in lackluster fashion by losing to EWU.
Now, they’re ready to put an end to all talk of season opening jinxes and to quiet their detractors.
When the 24th-ranked Cougars step on the field at Martin Stadium for their season opener against Montana State on Saturday night, they’re going to be ready for anything the Bobcats can throw at them, they say.
“We haven’t had a win in Week 1 since Leach has been here. We think if we want to help build that legacy and start this season the way we should, we need to focus on that first week like we never have before,” said middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “We’re doing a better job of just focusing on the task at hand instead of looking forward.”
The Cougars will admit now that they overlooked the Eagles last season.
Going into last year’s opening game, “we had no respect for EWU,” says senior running back Gerard Wicks. “We thought we were just gonna go out there and smack ‘em. But they ended up beating us.”
With time and hindsight, the Cougars claim they’ve learned from previous mistakes and have doubled-down to follow Leach’s credo: “Respect everyone, fear no one.”
Maturity has also helped in that regard. This WSU squad boasts 20 seniors on the roster, 19 of whom are in the depth chart as significant contributors.
“We’re older this year, we’ve had more experience than we’ve had,” Leach said. “I think that’s helpful because I think a lot of the time, adjusting to the first game has been difficult for some of our young guys. We have more guys who know their role, and that’s a result of having played some last year.”
Things feel different around the Cougars’ football program this year, Pelluer says. From the locker room to the practice field and beyond, the talk in team circles has been focused squarely on that first game against Montana State.
“We have so many guys here who’ve never won in Week 1,” Pelluer said. “We have lots of guys who understand the ramifications of this first week and the weeks leading up to it, and what we need to do is win that first week.”
Montana State is expecting a tough game from No. 24 WSU, which for only the third time in school history, will open the season ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
“It’s not going to be a situation where I think we’re going to be able to go in there and surprise them,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. “I know a lot will be made of the fact that they struggle in openers. I‘m sure that coach Leach has their attention. He understands that starting fast this year is probably a critical aspect for them as far as getting some of their team goals accomplished. I know they’ll have a good opponent in Boise State coming in the next week, but I don’t feel like they’re gonna overlook us at all.
“I think they’ll be prepared and ready to go. I’m sure they know they’ll have to stop No. 8 if they want to stop our offense.
That, of course, is sophomore quarterback Chris Murray.
Murray started the second half of the season for Montana State in 2016 after beating out former WSU quarterback Tyler Bruggman, and he scored 12 rushing touchdowns on route to the Big Sky’s Freshman Player of the Year award.
However, Murray wasn’t that effective as a passer. He threw six touchdowns to eight interceptions and finished the season with a completion percentage of 44.8.
Choate said the Bobcats played to Murray’s strengths last season and didn’t pass much.
“We were primarily a run team a year ago, trying to let him grow into the system,” Choate said. “Chris is an excellent athlete and he’s run a lot. He’s a very natural, fluid athlete and a confident young man – though not cocky. But where he was deficient is in the nuances of playing quarterback – identifying coverages and release points, and in footwork.
“We’ve invested in trying to develop him as a more complete quarterback and through his hard work he’s improved.”
The Bobcats’ goal this season is to become “a more complete offense,” Choate said.
Montana State returns nine starters on defense, but has some young skill players and two new linemen.
“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us to play a top-25 team, with a legitimate Heisman candidate,” Choate said. “And oh, by the way, they return nine of 11 starters on defense.”