Note: Yes, I know I skipped Utah, but Washington State plays tonight and apparently Utah played Thursday.
8-5, 7-2 in Conference
Key Wins: Stanford
Key Losses: Eastern Washington, Boise State, Minnesota
In what is becoming a troubling pattern, WSU dropped another opener to an FCS team, Eastern Washington, in a shootout that should not have been close. The salt in the wound is Eastern Washington’s proximity to Washington State, exerting their dominance over the eastern side of the state. WSU went down to Boise to save face and lost in a heartbreaker. Starting 0-2 to two regionally proximate teams, it did not look like 2016 was going to bode well for the Cougs.
The tune-up game came in week three against a third regionally proximate team: Idaho (only eight miles separate the two schools). As expected, WSU throttled the Vandals 56-6. WSU doubled down on the Oregon Ducks, 51-33, and went to Stanford to whip them 42-16. Officially on a roll, they rattled off five more wins in a row until running into the soon-to-be Pac-12 South champions and lost by two scores. The Cougs lost to soon-to-be Pac-12 Champions and playoff participant Washington Huskies 45-17. Their bowl opponent, Minnesota, were severe underdogs when many of their starters were suspended for a heinous sexual assault charge. Regardless, the Golden Gophers were able to win 17-12, ending the Cougs’ season with a three game losing streak.
Head Coach: Mike Leach
While the overall record does not show it, Mike Leach has already been one of the greatest coaches in Washington State history. When Paul Wulff left, the Cougs had not been above .500 in 9 years. In two seasons, Leach led the Cougs to a bowl appearance and two seasons after that the Cougs had their first bowl win since 2003. The question that looms is, as the Pac-12 becomes more competitive, can Leach take this program to the next step in a Pac-12 Championship and a New Year’s Six appearance? I say yes, but only time will tell.
This offense begins and ends with Luke Falk. While he may not put up the sheer volume of numbers that his predecessor Connor Halliday did, Falk has shown his cerebral ability to lead the Cougs to signature wins. Missing this year is a pair of receivers that go down in Washington State history: Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Marks, the Michael Crabtree type, and Cracraft, the Wes Welker type, were a formidable duo that gave teams fits. This year, Falk will lean on Tavares Martin, Kyle Sweet, and Robert Lewis as the returning receivers. In the backfield, James Williams, Jamal Morrow, and Gerard Wicks come back having been featured unusually high for a Leach offense. The Cougs have never had a problem producing star linemen and will count on All-American Cody O’Connell and honorable mention All-Conference Cole Madison to keep Falk healthy.
Where WSU’s offense shines, their defense has never been a strength. After bringing defensive coordinator Alex Grinch in from Missouri, the Cougs have made considerable strides from horrid to marginal (couple a marginal defense with a high-octane offense and you have yourself a pretty damn good team). Progression from marginal will be expected in order for the Cougs to make the next step. Their passing defense remained a burden to the team’s success. A bright spot for the Cougs was the ability to create negative plays (sacks, tackles for loss). To make a leap defensively, the Cougs need to be sure to limit big plays to pair with their ability to make negative ones. DE Hercules Mata’afa, LBs Peyton Pueller, Isaac Dotson, and Frankie Luvu will man the front seven. Missing from that lineup is the mention of a defensive back, of which there are many question marks and no defined bright spots. On a defense that was underwhelming in the pass defense, someone needs to step up in a big way.
Projected Record: 7-5
A 7-5 record is less of a condemnation of the Cougs as it is a praise of their competition. The Pac-12 is a notoriously cannibalistic conference. Another bowl appearance and a win might seem like an underwhelming way to send off Luke Falk, but considering where the Cougs were five years ago, consistent success is something Washington State has not seen in a long time.