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Today at No. 97: WASHINGTON STATE Coach: Mike Leach (12-25, entering fourth season, 96-68 overall) 2014 record: 3-9, 2-7 in Pac-12; fifth in North...

college football winning best betToday at No. 97: WASHINGTON STATE

Coach: Mike Leach (12-25, entering fourth season, 96-68 overall)

2014 record: 3-9, 2-7 in Pac-12; fifth in North Division

Look back: It normally takes three years to evaluate the direction of a program under a new head coach. Washington State’s football program has been inconsistent during Mike Leach’s first three seasons. A three-win season in 2012 was followed by a six-win season in 2013. But any momentum from the program’s first bowl appearance in a decade seemed evaporate with another three-win season in 2014. Nevertheless, the 12 wins during Leach’s tenure are more than the victories during previous four seasons.

Offensive starters returning: 7

Offensive starters lost: 4

Defensive starters returning: 7

Defensive starters lost: 4

Key losses: QB Connor Halliday, WR Vince Mayle, WR Isiah Myers, RB Marcus Mason, WR Rickey Galvin, NT Kalafitoni Pole, LB Cyrus Coen, DL Xavier Cooper, CB Daquawn Brown

Top returnees: OL Gunnar Eklund, OL Joe Dahl, OL Riley Sorenson, OL Eduardo Middleton, OL Cole Madison, WR Tyler Baker, WR River Cracraft, RB Jamal Morrow, DE Destiny Vaeao, LB Kache Palacio, LB Peyton Pelluer, LB Jeremiah Allison, S Darius Lemora, S Taylor Taliulu

Strengths: Washington State featured the second-best offense in the Pac-12 last season, with Leach’s Air Raid offense averaging more than 31 points and 515 yards per game. Senior quarterback Connor Halliday led the league in passing yards per game (430) and left the program in the offseason with most of the school’s career-passing records in tow. Redshirt freshman Luke Falk was thrust into the starting lineup late in the season after Holliday suffered a broken leg during a Nov. 1 loss to USC. During six appearances, Falk completed close to 70 percent of his passes for 903 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception.

The good news for the Cougars is the offensive line returns four starters from last season. They accounted for 79 career starts, with linemen Gunnar Eklund (35 career starts) and Joe Dahl (25) anchoring the group that allowed 36 sacks per game in 2014.

The team’s top two receivers, Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, left for the NFL. They accounted for more than 2,400 yards and 21 receiving touchdowns. River Cracraft and Dom Williams are expected to slide into bigger roles in 2015.

Weaknesses: The Cougars haven’t averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game since 2011 and last season’s 39.8 yards per game was the second time in three years the program averaged less than 40 yards on the ground. Running backs Jamal Morrow (309) and Gerald Wicks (212) combined for most of the production out of the backfield.

Defensively, Washington State took a slight step backward in 2014, allowing more than 38 points and 442 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske was fired after two seasons with the program and Alex Grinch was hired away from Missouri. He’ll look for improvement in several areas, including the front line. Defensive end Destiny Vaeao is the only remaining standout from last season.

The pass defense was abysmal in 2014, with the Cougars allowing close to 300 yards per game through the air. Grinch’s expertise is the secondary, so his guidance should help a young, talented group of players in 2015.

Outlook: Washington State has been among the also-rans in the Pac-12 North. Oregon and Stanford remain among the elite programs in the division while Washington and California are making vast improvements to keep up. Upgrades to the facilities go a long way in attracting top recruits, but wins guarantee they stay put in Pullman. Leach is working to deliver another winning season, but the defense could be a problem again in 2015.

2015 SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Portland State

Sept. 12 at Rutgers

Sept. 19 Wyoming

Oct. 3 at California

Oct. 10 at Oregon

Oct. 17 Oregon State

Oct. 24 at Arizona

Oct. 31 Stanford

Nov. 7 Arizona State

Nov. 14 at UCLA

Nov. 21 Colorado

Nov. 27 at Washington

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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