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Breakthrough 2015 A Possible Springboard for More at Washington State

Luke Falk

Luke Falk

The most successful football season in 12 years at Washington State nearly derailed out of the starting gate.

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"Here we go again," defensive back Parker Henry said, reminiscing on the sentiment that might very well have overtaken the Washington State locker room following Week 1.

Coming off a 3-9 finish in which head coach Mike Leach made sweeping personnel changes; Washington State dropped its 2015 opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Portland State. It was the program's first loss to a Big Sky Conference foe in more than six decades.

"If it had been a team in the past or a weaker team, I think we would've given in," Henry said. "But the team being how strong it was, with the corps of leaders we had and the coaching staff — what they instilled in us — we didn't really bat an eye.

"Things happen," he added. "Adversity happens. It's how you react."

Washington State reacted by ripping off nine wins in its ensuing 12 games, including road defeats of Arizona, Oregon and UCLA. The Cougars hosted Stanford deep into the season very much in contention for their first divisional title.

And while a narrow Cardinal victory denied Washington State a shot at the Pac-12 North, the program took a huge step toward regaining the relevance it enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Cougars appeared in a pair of Rose Bowls.

Before that point, however, Washington State needed some soul-searching.

"I sat in the showers for about an hour [after the Portland State game] and was thinking, 'I can't be doing this again,'" wide receiver Gabe Marks said. "[In the following days] I talked to [former Washington State Rose Bowl quarterback] Jason Gesser, and I was like, 'I literally don't know what more to do.'

"He was like, 'Keep doing what you're doing, and it will work out,'" Marks said. "A few weeks later, we got it rolling."

One takeaway the Cougars gained from that week was to not take any Saturday for granted. They couldn't be accused of taking any other opponent lightly for the rest of the season.

"It reminds you, it's hard to win a game in college football," Henry said. "It's never easy. You've really got to be fully invested every practice, every meeting."

It's an important sentiment to bear in mind on Week 1. Teams improve or taper off as a season progresses, in part because that opening weekend is the first time implementing certain strategies.

For Washington State, Week 1 of 2015 was its first under the defensive direction of new coordinator Alex Grinch.

One of the young, up-and-coming stars of the coaching ranks, Grinch's presence played a central role to Washington State's resurgence.

"It was a huge effect, and a positive one," Henry said of having Grinch "He's changed the whole culture of our defense and of our [defense] as a whole."

Known for its prolific passing attack out of Leach's signature air-raid scheme, Washington State staked its identity last season largely on that redefined defense.

Henry credited Grinch's "intensity," as well as the schematic changes introduced, though the Cougars faced "a learning curve."

The same was true of the offense — particularly Week 1 against Portland State.

Record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday's absence loomed large as the air raid was grounded to 17 points. A deluge of rain on the Palouse that afternoon didn't help, either.

"The air raid does not work well in the rain," Marks joked. "I've been telling everyone on campus that we need to start a petition to get a dome... Why don't we have a dome? Idaho has a dome and we don't."

The recently renovated Martin Stadium will not add a ceiling any time soon, but Luke Falk's emergence as a weapon on par with Halliday fueled the Cougar offense's improvement over the rest of the season.

Falk returns in 2016, and his No. 1 target, Marks, will have a chance to rewrite Pac-12 records in the coming campaign.

They set the foundation for a corps of eight returning starters on offense, giving Washington State one of the most experienced units in the conference. That alone is apparently not enough to wow Pac-12 media – the Cougars were tabbed fourth in the division's preseason poll Thursday.

But as last year's nine-win run demonstrates, it's not the preseason, nor even Week 1, that defines a contender.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.