Washington State improved its win total by six games last season after a 3-9 mark in 2014. The Cougars also claimed the program’s second bowl trip under coach Mike Leach. As usual for a Mike Leach-coached team, Washington State will be dynamic on offense. Quarterback Luke Falk headlines the high-powered passing attack, while receiver Gabe Marks should push for All-America honors. The defense showed improvement under new coordinator Alex Grinch last season but has to retool in the front seven.
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Previewing Washington State’s Offense
Luke Falk, who threw for more than 4,500 yards, 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions a season ago, will surely have the numbers to support a dark horse Heisman campaign. If everything else breaks like the Cougars think it could, Washington State may have the wins to make that dream for Falk a reality.
Biletnikoff Award semifinalist receiver Gabe Marks delayed entering the NFL Draft and heads a deep receiver corps that should give Falk plenty of capable targets. Marks caught 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and fellow starting receivers Robert Lewis and River Cracraft are also back. The new starting receiver, sophomore Tavares Martin, is also the team’s fastest player.
It’s true that the Cougars must replace a pair of three-year starters on the left side of the offensive line, but the three returning starters each earned some sort of postseason honors last year.
Falk threw game-winning touchdown passes with just seconds left at Rutgers and UCLA, and tied the game with a scoring toss with just one second left in the overtime win at Oregon. If the new starting offensive linemen can protect his blind side, Falk — who missed the Apple Cup and left two other games because of injuries — can lead the Cougars to new heights.
Previewing Washington State’s Defense
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Mike Leach took a chance when he hired a first-year defensive coordinator in his mid-30s, and oh, did Alex Grinch deliver. The WSU defense improved its points-allowed average from 38.6 points per game to 27.7 in one year under Grinch and tripled its takeaways from eight to 24.
Depth along the defensive line is a concern after losing two all-conference defensive ends, but big things are expected from sophomore Hercules Mata’afa, who was named Outstanding Lineman of the Sun Bowl win after drawing double teams from Miami’s offensive linemen all game. Nose tackle Robert Barber has shown flashes but will need to play consistently for the Cougars to hold up along the line.
At linebacker, Dylan Hanser and Nnamdi Oguayo are inexperienced but athletic options at the rush linebacker position. Peyton Pelluer is a steady and sound presence at middle linebacker, while weak-side linebacker Frankie Luvu brings size and athleticism to the defense’s second level.
Grinch’s biggest impact was turning the secondary from a weakness to a strength last year, thanks in part to the stellar play of junior college transfer Shalom Luani at strong safety. Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins are capable cornerbacks, and Charleston White and Deion Singleton are rangy backups.
Previewing Washington State’s Specialists
Erik Powell has a big leg, but he must become more accurate from distance after making just half of his 10 attempts from 40 or more yards last season. Zach Charme was solid for a freshman punter last season and is expected to improve on his 39.6-yard average.
The Cougars were left for dead by some after their season-opening home loss to FCS Portland State. Then they rattled off wins against some of the Pac-12’s toughest programs, winning on the road and often coming from behind in the final minutes to do so. New offensive coaches Dave Nichol and JaMarcus Shephard have brought energy to the wide receivers, and the defense is playing with a swagger not seen in Pullman since the Palouse Posse days of the mid-’90s. WSU won’t sneak up on anyone this year and still has to get through the Pac-12 North, which should be one of the toughest divisions in the nation this year. But Marks set a tone for this season when he announced that he would spurn the NFL to chase a Rose Bowl with the Cougars, and with so many key contributors returning, perhaps the Cougars won’t need to rely on Falk to lead game-winning drives in 2016.