2015: 9-4 OVERALL (6-3 PAC-12 North)
2017 NFL Draft Prospects: DT Robert Barber, WR River Cracraft, QB Luke Faulk, S Shalom Luani, WR Gabe Marks, DE Hercules Mata’afa
The 2012 hiring of Mike Leach by Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos finally paid off in 2015 with the Cougars winning nine games including a snowy Sun Bowl win over Miami in El Paso. For the complex personality that is the former Texas Tech head coach, nothing seems easy, except when you hear him explain the simplicities of his Air Raid offense and how much fun it is to play in it, as long as you are in the depth chart on offense. Be it the embarassing loss to Portland State in the home opener, the double overtime win on the road in Eugene, the blowout Apple Cup loss without their starting quarterback, or their first bowl game victory since 2003; last season had a bit of everything.
Heading into 2016 the offense has some rebuilding to do on the offensive line but returns what looks to once again be a formidable passing offense that has one of the most efficient quartebacks distributing the ball in the country. Continued success for the first time in back-to-back seasons will again come down to the two biggest question marks for Leach since he took over in Pullman; can the defense force turnovers and can the special teams simply get out of the the way of the offense.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE COUGARS ON OFFENSE
2015 S&P+ Offense: 47th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 89.4% (14th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 69 (49th in FBS)
Much has already been written and spoken about the intricacies of Leach’s offensive philosophy. Yes, Washington State is going to throw the ball more than any other team in FBS play. As a result, no they aren’t going to run the ball as much as any other team. In fact in the four years since Leach took over, his teams have thrown the ball, on average, 77 more times per season than the next time in the country.
In junior Luke Falk, Leach has a quarterback who fits his system a bit more than his predecessor Connor Halliday. He’s ruthlessly efficient in his short to intermediate accuracy and has a much stronger pocket presence than Halliday. With Falk at the helm the Cougars weren’t as explosive hitting teams with the deep ball, but were much more consistant moving the chains with a short passing game that lead the conference in red zone efficiency.
Falk returns for his second season with each of 2016 NFL Draft first overall pick Jared Goff’s statistics as reachable goals. He lead the conference with his near 70-percent of passes completed and was on pace to eclipse Goff in passing yards and touchdowns had he not missed the rivalry game against the Huskies in November.
No returning QB had a higher Accuracy Percentage (remove drops, spikes, throwaways, etc) than WSU's Luke Falk in '15 pic.twitter.com/scRXLwsjri
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 10, 2016
In what is perhaps the year of the wide receiver in the Pac-12, the Cougars return perhaps the most consistent group of pass catchers top-to-bottom, lead by all-conference standout senior Gabe Marks. If Falk and Marks played in the SEC or for one of the LA schools they would get more attention.
And while they do lose 1,000-yard receiver Dom Williams, 6-foot-1 sophomore Tavares Martin Jr. looks to take his place on the outside joined by a healthy return by River Cracraft, one of the better returning slot receivers in the country.
The running back position is one of the more interesting story-lines of the 2016 team. While Leach calls running players fewer than any other coach in the nation even in the red zone and on short yardage situations, his teams seem to always gobble yards when a running play is actually called. Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow while combining for just 160 carries averaged 5.9 yards a carry. And no, Leach won’t be running a power offense anytime soon, but a team that only gives the ball to their starting back less than ten times a game could do much worse.
The biggest position group in question on offense will be the Cougars offensive line. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire will be forced to replace the left side of his position group which totaled 79 career starts between the likes of all-conference left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund.
The good news is that the Cougars still have senior right guard Eduardo Middleton, who recorded the pass blocking grade among all returning FBS guards according to Pro Football Focus’ scouting metrics. Not to mention fellow two-year starters in center Riley Sorenson and right tackle Cole Madison. And they’ll be aided by the fact the scheme pushes extreme splits between linemen to account for them not using a tight end to stay in and help block the edges.
Leach’s system gets a bad wrap for the quarterback taking too many hits. Yes the 2015 offensive line allowed 40 sacks, tied for most in the Pac-12. But when you factor in the sheer volume of drop-backs, that number starts to change a bit as the Cougars offensive line allowed a sack every 18.5 pass attempts, fourth best in the league.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE COUGARS ON DEFENSE
2015 S&P+ Defense: 74th in FBS
2015 Havoc Rate: 34th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 6
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 65.3% (55th in FBS)
Alex Grinch enters his second year in control of the defense in Pullman, and turned out to be a great hire by Leach as a first-time coordinator. The Grinch coached defense jumped from 95th to 74th in Football Outsiders Defensive S&P+ rankings, and from 77th to 34th in Havoc Rate from 2014 to 2015. Now the trick will be to continuing to improve on those numbers all while replacing some key upperclassmen departures accounting for 77-percent of the teams sacks last season. If he can pull a rabbit out of a hat two years in a row, the 36-year-old former safeties coach at Missouri will be tough to hold on to.
The Cougars rise in defensive prowess was due entirely on its improvement in pass defense. Sophomore defensive end Hercules Mata’afa totaled 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 21 hurries working mainly out of sub packages in 2015. The freshman all-american will become a starter for the first time this season on a defense built on size over speed. All that speed lead to the Cougars allowing just 13 passing touchdowns in 2015, second best in the conference behind their in-state rivals Washington.
On the back-end, Shalom Luani is one of the better safeties returning in 2016 in terms of his coverage skills. As a junior he lead the team with four interceptions and sheriffs a secondary returning four of it’s five key contributors from last season.
Junior inside linebacker Peyton Pelluer is a three-year starter and provides experience and strength up the spine of this defense. He and Mata’afa will be the keys to a front seven that will be rebuilding and trying to keep pace with the veteran secondary.
Grinch has all sorts of options in terms of pass rusher specialists to compliment the talents of Mata’afa but the team needs to improve upon on a run defense that allowed the third most yards per rush attempt in the Pac-12. In an effort to slow down Leach’s quick strike offense, teams will always want to establish the run to eat up clock on the Cougars. In order for the defense to hand the ball back to the offense it also needs to improve on getting off the field on third down (ranked 107th in FBS).
It’s time to find out if the 2015 will become the bar for a program that’s had its share of ups and downs, or if it simply was an outlier for Leach’s second head coaching job in college. Wins against Pac-12 heavyweights Oregon and UCLA on the road were impressive and will prove to be much needed experience as the Cougars will now have some confidence going up against the same teams at Martin Stadium this fall.
If Grinch can improve on the run defense while his secondary takes the next step, this team will instantly improve. From there, the offense will truly become elite if it continue to move the chain in chunks will trying to fit more explosive plays on its resume all while missing out on imposing defenses likely to be fielded by USC and Utah.
Leach’s team hit ASU hard in the fourth quarter of their contest in Pullman with Luke Falk throwing three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback win. Much of the off-season in Tempe has been centered around rebuilding a Devils pass defense that was torn apart on that game back in early November 2015.
With Keith Patterson’s defense practicing daily against Chip Lindsay’s offense that has pieces of Air Raid tendencies in it, ASU should be able to begin to correct the multitude of blown coverage calls made during last years contest and have the opportunity to get back to the success seen against the Cougars from 2012-2014.
For more statistical information on Washington State, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats Report.