Signs of improvement are key when attempting to rebuild a program, and after only winning three games his first season in Pullman, WA, head coach Mike Leach led the Washington State Cougars to a 6-7 in 2013 and a berth in the New Mexico Bowl. In order to take that next step and become competitive in the PAC 12, Leach must get better statistical play out of his defense and bring balance to the offense by running the ball more.
To say the Cougars were one-dimensional in 2013 would be a drastic understatement. They were fourth in the nation in pass offense, averaging 368.0 YPG, but were ranked 123rd in rushing offense, only averaging 53.4 YPG. Because they will be replacing three out of five offensive linemen this season, there should be more of an effort to run the ball. In 2013, they only had three runs of scrimmage longer than 20 yards.
Senior Marcus Mason is the starter after rushing for 429 yards and two touchdowns, and he will have some help as senior Theron West performed well enough in the New Mexico Bowl to be in contention for more carries this season.
Production from the running game will be imperative to the improvement of senior quarterback Connor Halliday. While Halliday displayed great talent in passing for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns, he also showed some questionable decision-making in leading the PAC 12 in interceptions with 22. For a team that relies so heavily on the passing game, that number has to be reduced, and it will be if he gets some help from his offensive line and rushing attack.
The one thing the senior quarterback will have is options at the wide receiver position. Junior Gabe Marks, with 74 catches 807 yards last year, leads a Cougars receiving corps that returns its eight top pass catchers from 2013. Joining Marks in the starting lineup will be sophomore River Caracraft, senior Rickey Galvin and senior Vince Mayle.
Perhaps the most talented receiver on the roster isnt even listed on the two-deep, as former top-10 receiver recruit Sebastian LaRue of Inglewood, CA will be eligible after sitting out 2013.
Despite the struggles with the running game, there are many that believe that the Cougars’ season could have been more successful if they could have stopped someone on defense. Just as much as offense found success in the passing game, the defense struggled defending it. They finished 112th in the nation allowing 270.8 YPG. They were in the bottom half of the PAC-12 rankings in scoring defense (32.5 PPG), rush defense (187.2 YPG) and total defense (458.0 YPG).
This can all be turned around with improved production up front.
All three defensive linemen return on the season, but that may not always be a good thing. Junior defensive tackle Xavier Cooper is the best of the bunch and led the Cougars in tackles-for-loss (13.5) and sacks (five). There are five upperclassmen in the two-deep up front, and it is time to lead the defense.
The graduation of All-PAC 12 safety Deone Bucannon leaves a huge hole in the defensive backfield that returns only one starter, junior safety Taylor Taliulu. Unlike with the defensive line, there is not a lot of experience at safety and cornerback — six of the eight players are either sophomore or redshirt freshman classification.
For a team that already struggled defending the pass, this could either be good because of an infusion of new talent, or frustrating due to the growing pains of inexperience.
They open the season against new Big-10 member Rutgers in Seattle, WA, and will then play a road game against the University of Nevada and a home game with Portland St. There is enough offensive firepower to carry the team to victory in these three games while the new starters on defense get acclimated.
The conference schedule has the Cougars hosting Oregon, Cal, Arizona, USC and this season’s Apple Cup against Washington. While these are tough games, playing some of the better teams in the conference at home will give WAZZU the best shot at pulling off the upset. They then travel to face Utah, Stanford, Oregon St. and Arizona St. A split is the best outcome for the team as they should be able to defeat Utah and Oregon St.
The slight improvement in victories will show Cougar fans that the team is buying into what Leach and his staff are trying to get across, and being forced to play younger players should could mean brighter days for the program in the future.