The college football season is coming ever closer as the month of July draws to a close. With that in mind, we continue the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series with No. 36, the Washington State Cougars.
The Cougars started 2011 strong, jumping out to a 3-1 record and boasting one of the highest scoring offenses in the country over the first month. Then the level of competition raised, and the Cougars fell off, losing five straight games, and seven of their last eight, to finish at 4-8 (2-7). Their cause wasn’t helped by a defense that finished 95th in points allowed and a rash of injuries at the quarterback position. The Cougars had three quarterbacks make starts for them in 2011, and all three of them at some point missed games due to injury. Now, Mike Leach has been hired to help the Cougars turn things around and he will have weapons to work with. The Cougars were a top-ten passing offense last year, throwing for 322.3 yards per game under former coach Paul Wulff. With the Air Raid offense of Leach on the sidelines, can the Cougars reach a whole new level in 2012?
Any Leach offense is keyed by the quarterback position, and the Cougars have some depth under center. Senior Jeff Tuel is slated to be the opening day starter after a disastrous 2011 where he played just three games before having his year ended by injury. Now, Tuel is back to 100 percent and used that year away from playing to get smarter as a quarterback, getting himself ready to be the next “great” Mike Leach quarterback. Behind him is sophomore Connor Halliday, who showed flashes of his potential last season when he threw for 494 yards and four touchdowns in his first start against Arizona State. As a Plan-B, the Cougars could do a lot worse.
WSU’s most exciting player, however, is at wide receiver. Marquess Wilson burst onto the scene last year, making 82 catches for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns, catching 66 percent of passes thrown his direction. He’s been put on the watch list for just about every postseason award, including the Belitnikoff Award and a very outside shot at a Heisman. He’s a Michael Crabtree type that likely helped entice Leach to Pullman in the first place. Behind him, the Cougars will look to a trio of sophomores in Bobby Ratliff, Kristoff Williams, and Isiah Myers to fill spots 2-4 in the receiving depth chart, which will get used top to bottom in the pass heavy Leach offense.
The weakness of the Cougars last season was their running game. As a team, WSU rushed for just 100.2 yards per game, good for 111th in the nation. Senior Carl Winston comes back this season with the most experience, carrying the ball 123 times last season, but for a very disappointing 442 yards (3.6 yards/carry). The Cougars will likely turn to a pair of sophomore runners in Rickey Galvin and Marcus Mason who showed explosive talent in their freshman campaigns. Galvin led the team in rushing, running the ball 114 times for 602 yards, good for a 5.3 yards per carry average, scoring five touchdowns. Mason was used more sparingly, rushing just 19 times, but gained 153 yards (8.1 yards per carry) and scored once. Expect the Cougars to let the young legs run this season to try and keep defenses somewhat honest.
The defense was supposed to be the unit that would bring the most experience back this season, but after three defensive starters getting dismissed this spring and summer, the defense is looking thin. On the defensive line, the loss of of Anthony Laurenzi, who was kicked off the team last week after being arrested for stealing a pair of headphones, will be tough to overcome. Laurenzi was the second leading returning tackler on the defensive line, and was a versatile lineman who would play in both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Now, it will be up to senior Travis Long to pick up even more of the slack and be a dominant presence off the edge for the Cougars. He’ll look to get some help from three-star, 300-pound transfer nose tackle Ioane Gauta.
At linebacker, the Cougars lose even more. C.J. Mizell and Sakope Kaufusi, both returning junior starters, were asked to leave the team during the spring early in Leach’s tenure as coach. The Cougars will now have to replace their combined 82 tackles and four sacks from 2011 with a roster that boasts just three other linebackers with any playing time. Eric Oertel, an undersized junior linebacker, will be the elder leader of the group and the Cougars will hope to transition defensive end Logan Mayes to a 3-4 outside linebacker to bring pressure from the edge in a Von Miller style of DE/OLB hybrid.
The secondary looks like it will be the most experienced group this season after a 2011 campaign that saw nine different defensive backs log 10 tackles or more. This year, look for safety Deone Bucannon to roam center field for WSU and come down in run support as a hard hitting tackler. Junior Damante Horton will lead the cornerbacks after a good 2011, where he had four interceptions and three passes defended. However, the back end will need help from the Cougar front seven to take some pressure off their coverage unit.
The Cougars will benefit from a soft schedule to open up the season which could help the Mike Leach era begin smoothly. They open the season August 30 against BYU, which is a toss-up game based on how well WSU has picked up Leach’s offensive attack and how well the defense has patched some of its holes. After that, the Cougars get three extremely winnable games against FCS opponent Eastern Washington, UNLV, and then open Pac-12 play with a home game against Colorado. It would be easy to see WSU coming out of this stretch at 3-1 or even 4-0. After that, the Cougars’ competition gets a little stiffer, facing Oregon at home before trips to Stanford and Utah later in the season. They benefit from not playing USC this year, however.
It’s certainly too early for WSU to be considered a legitimate Pac-12 threat, but they will certainly be more fun to watch than they have been for several years. The tools are in place for Leach’s Air Raid offense to take root quickly, which could propel the Cougars to between six and nine wins, making the Cougars bowl eligible for the first time since 2003 and extend Leach’s streak of at least six wins to 11 straight seasons.
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