WSU wary of ‘strong’ Southern Utah team

PULLMAN — Washington State coach Mike Leach has never lost to an FCS opponent, but he’s concerned about the size of the Southern Utah players the Cougars will face today.

The Thunderbirds are “big, strong, kind of blocky-looking guys, and they hang onto stuff and move it around,” Leach said.

Washington State (1-1) enters today’s home opener coming off a surprising 10-7 win at Southern California.

Southern Utah (2-0) is a member of the Big Sky Conference and under coach Ed Lamb they are intensely dedicated to the weight room.

“We’re a team that’s weightlifters first who happen to play football,” Lamb said.

The Thunderbirds also figure to have little to lose in going up against a Pacific-12 Conference opponent.

“The bus won’t be leaving until the end of the game anyway, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can and see what happens,” Lamb said.

Southern Utah has already beaten an FBS opponent this year in South Alabama. And Washington State players are intensely aware that Eastern Washington of the Big Sky upset Oregon State this season.

“You never want to be in a situation where a Big Sky school beats a Pac-12 team,” said defensive lineman Ioane Gauta. “We don’t take Southern Utah lightly.”

“We’re going to game prep just like it’s Alabama,” added receiver Dom Williams.

At the same time, Southern Utah and next week’s game against Idaho are two contests that WSU fans had penciled in as likely victories at the beginning of the season.

Five things to watch for today when Washington State plays Southern Utah:

Southern Utah’s rush

The Thunderbirds have run the ball 91 times and thrown it just 41 times in their first two games. Raysean Martin and Malik Brown are the running backs. Quarterback Aaron Cantu hasn’t thrown much, but he is completing 70 percent of his passes.

WSU’s offense

The Cougars managed to beat then-No. 25 Southern Cal without scoring an offensive touchdown. They need to get Leach’s Air Raid offense clicking, and amass more than 222 total yards, if they hope to reach a bowl game this year. Quarterback Connor Halliday needs to stop throwing interceptions deep in enemy territory.

WSU’s defense

The Cougars limited USC to less than 200 yards last week, even as the WSU offense was also failing to move the ball much. “We haven’t let things upset our composure,” Leach said. Two big interceptions by Damante Horton, one returned 70 yards for WSU’s only touchdown, were major keys to the victory. Horton was named Pac-12 defensive player of the week. “We’ve got a little swagger,” Horton said of the defense.

Home cooking

This is Washington State’s first home game after tough trips to Auburn and Southern California. The Cougars continue to make big improvements to Martin Stadium, and players are excited to play in front of their own fans. “It’s always better to play at home,” Leach said. “It’s a more thrilling experience that way.”

Thumping the FCS

Washington State has never lost a game to an FCS opponent in 17 outings. But last season, they barely escaped from Eastern Washington, taking a 24-20 win in Pullman. The Cougars are 78-34-3 all-time in home openers.

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