2014 Record: 3-9 (2-7 Pac-12 North)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: wide receiver River Cracraft, defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao, wide receiver Dom Williams
When Washington State head coach Mike Leach took over in Pulman three seasons ago, he was confident his offense would score points, but building a winning culture let alone at least an average defense has proved a challenge for the Cougars. Having won 12 only 37 games in his three years, it was time to make some big changes on the coaching staff in order to get back to developing where Leach’s 2013 squad left off, while putting the 2014 season in the rear view mirror.
Most agree the offense was more than acceptable for the Cougs finishing second in total offense among Pac-12 teams in 2014, even after losing quarterback Connor Halliday in the USC game. The defense and special teams on the other hand completely melted down and hung Leach’s offense out to dry. But this team still managed to stay in a lot of games due (losses to Oregon and Cal by 8 points combined) to the Cougs Air Raid passing offense averaging over 100 yards more passing yards per game than any other team in conference.
Leach was busy in the off-season re-shaping his coaching staff replacing defensive coordinator Mike Breske (Cougs finished 9, 10, and 12 in total defense over Breske’s time) with Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch. Breske’s secondary was plagued by injury last year, but his defense’s inability to force turnovers combined to assure his dismissal. Big change for a team that led 21-7 in the second quarter at one point during the game played at Sun Devil Stadium last season.
Now with a new defensive coordinator, a re-shaped special teams unit (two kickoff returns for touchdowns by Cal last October), a skilled group of receivers, and an offensive line chalk full of experience give Cougs fans something to be excited about.
What to look for from the Aggies on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 32.5 (39th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 6
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 42% (105th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 93 (17th in FBS)
Halliday’s early finish to his record breaking senior season due to injury was certainly disappointing. But the quick ascension of Luke Faulk (over 1,800 yards passing in six games) was certainly impressive. He won his first start by tossing five touchdowns at Oregon State and showed impressive poise and mobility while finishing the season with 13 touchdown passes and more than 1,800 yards in just six games.
Faulk will have to learn to trust his line more, as he was sacked on average twice as much as Halliday, but there’s been talk all offseason that Leach will be calling more plays with his quarterback under center in an effort to aid his running backs. That’s important, in that Leach had his most successful seasons at Texas Tech when he had at least the threat of using the run game.
In just his second start of 2014, Faulk threw for 601 yards against the Devils in 2014. He also did the things young quarterbacks do against Todd Graham defenses, with four interceptions, six sacks, and a fumble. If the run game can be moderately effective in its usage, it will make an already above-average receivers group that much better. The group of pass catchers taking any help they can get going into 2015 as they replace their two most targeted receivers from last season.
They will however be welcoming back their top receiver from 2013 in Gabe Marks. Who with River Cracraft and Dom Williams will form one of the best trios in the conference. Williams having the highest ceiling of the group and who improved dramatically from second to third year in Leach’s offense.
Offensive line coach Clay McGuire will oversee the second most experience group in the Pac-12, including all of last years two-deep. Left tackle Joe Dahl started all 12 games at the position last season and was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention. He combines with left guard Gunnar Eklund for 57 of those 93 returning starts.
What to look for from the Aggies on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 33.0 (95th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.151 (77th in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 59% (80th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 8
Washington State’s opponents averaged over 6 yards per play against defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s defense in 2014. A defense that was never really able to have a cohesive match between scheme to personnel. It’s great to want to form a culture of aggressive defensive football that causes turnovers and gives the ball back to an efficient high-scoring offense. But when you don’t have the players to force those turnovers, let alone an offense that goes no-huddle and goes three-and-out a lot, the recipe becomes quite toxic.
But while the Cougs defense was about average at getting third down stops, they trailed only ASU and Colorado in the Pac-12 allowing 71 total plays of 20 yards or more. They also forced just 8 turnovers last year, 19 less than the Devils, and dead last in the conference. Much of the poor play due to a secondary that was in constant flux, with only two players playing in all 12 contests and another 10 appearing in more than 2 games including six freshmen.
One of the interesting early season storylines will be how Grinch does as Breske’s replacement, while also taking over a position coach for the corners and safeties. Grinch coached the Missouri secondary over the last 3 years to mixed results, finishing sixth or worse in pass defense during his time. But the Tigers topped the SEC in defensive interceptions and forced turnovers in 2013, so you can see the thinking behind his hiring by Leach.
Grinch looks to build his new defense around speed, utilizing a heavy nickel look during the spring. Will the defense improve against the pass while maintaining an average run defense? That’s where those added takeaways really tend to help a defense.
The schedule gods are with Mike Leach this year as his Cougs play in seven games where they statistically have at least a 50-percent chance of winning. All of which becomes that much more possible if Grinch’s defense can help to keep the offense in games, especially against the likes of ASU who have scored a combined 107 points during the past two meetings between the teams.
The Devils head to Pullman coming off a Thursday night contest against the Ducks giving Graham a week and a half to prep his defense from stopping the Ducks heavy run scheme to the Cougs pass all-day offense.
We saw how dangerous Leach’s offense could be last year when they put a big scare into Oregon last September, falling just short at Martin Stadium despite entering the game 24-point underdogs, losing 38-30.
It’s never fun for the Devils to go up to Pullman, especially in the middle of November where the gametime snow is always a threat. But if Todd Graham’s defense can continue to confuse Leach offensively while forcing turnovers (7 combined over the last two meetings) his team should win comfortably for a second straight trip to Martin Stadium.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Rep