Today at No. 26: Washington State
Coach: Mike Leach (29-34, entering sixth season; 113-77 overall)
2016 record: 8-5, 7-2 in Pac-12, second in North Division
Look back: After closing 2015 with the program’s first nine-win season since 2003, imagine the surprise when Washington State dropped its first two games of the 2016 campaign. While most programs would have hit the panic button, the Cougars regrouped to win their next eight games, including an impressive victory over then-No. 15 Stanford. The team would go on to drop its final three games, including a 17-12 loss to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: WR Gabe Marks, WR River Cracraft, C Riley Sorenson, OL Eduardo Middleton, NT Robert Barber, CB Shalom Luani
Top returnees: QB Luke Falk, RB Gerard Wicks, WR Tavares Martin Jr., LB Peyton Pelluer, CB Darrien Molton, LB Isaac Dotson, DE Hercules Mata’afa
Strengths: Luke Falk continues to do his best to rewrite the record books after throwing for a Pac-12-best 4,468 yards in 2016. It was the third-most passing yards in the nation and the third-most passing yards at Washington State in a single season. He also tied the school’s single-season TD mark with 38 touchdowns. Falk continues to put up video game-type numbers this season, he’ll close his career as one of the best quarterbacks statistically in Pac-12 history.
Washington State’s Air Raid offense isn’t known for producing a complementary ground game, but that changed last season when the Cougars averaged more than 100 yards per game rushing for the first time under Mike Leach’s direction.
Three players stepped up to account for more than 1,600 yards and 23 touchdowns, including upper classmen Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks and sophomore James Williams. Normally, losing Gabe Marks and River Cracraft (1,595 total combined yards receiving) would be devastating for a unit, but Leach’s offensive system has a way of turning coal into diamonds. Tavares Martin Jr., who was the second-most targeted receiver on the squad in 2016, returns to step into a larger role for a group that is one of the deepest on the team.
Weaknesses: The Cougars continue to look to establish a pass rush after producing just 19 sacks in 2016 — the program’s lowest total since 2011. The team’s leading pass rusher, Hercules Mata’afa (5.0 sacks), returns to anchor a front line that needs some serious tinkering heading into the season.
In a league that emphasizes the passing game, Washington State’s secondary struggled to slow down opponents. The Cougars allowed nearly 8 yards per pass play in 2016 and gave up 16 plays of 25 yards or more. The three returning starters from the secondary — Darrien Molton, Robert Taylor and Jalen Thompson — failed to register a single interception last season.
Outlook: Washington State continues to make a case that it is one of the elite programs in the Pac-12. It’s taken a bit, but Leach has managed to make the Cougars competitive after years of losing campaigns. Can this team win the Pac-12 North? Mostly like not, but an eight- or nine-victory season isn’t out of the question.