The 2018 Apple Cup took a bite out of the Washington State Cougars' best-ever campaign.
That loss to in-state rival Washington kept them from playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game, despite going 10-2 in the regular season. Washington State rebounded to beat Iowa State 28-26 in the Alamo Bowl for a program-record 11 victories and finished the season 10th in both polls.
That success aside, colorful head coach Mike Leach's team enters the 2019 campaign with unfinished business at hand, and uncertainty at the most important position on the field following the graduation of quarterback Gardner Minshew. An unknown commodity himself leading into last season after transferring from East Carolina, all Minshew did was earn Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors after leading the nation in passing (367.6 ypg).
With the mustachioed Minshew no longer at the helm, the Cougars open the 2019 season Saturday night at home against the New Mexico State Aggies. It's part of a soft start to the slate for Wazzu with FCS opponent Northern Colorado coming to Pullman in Week 2 before things pick up on the road against Houston.
The Aggies are coming off of a 3-9 showing last season, their first as an FBS Independent. Head coach Doug Martin enters his seventh season at New Mexico State feeling some pressure (20-53 record) to win, but is likely staring at another tough start to the season. After facing the Cougars in Pullman, the Aggies head to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama. That doesn't sound promising for a team that beat just two FBS teams (UTEP and Liberty, which was a transitional member in 2018) last season while giving up 41 points and 476 yards per game.
New Mexico State at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31, at 10 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State -31
When New Mexico State Has the Ball
If the Aggies have any shot at upsetting the Cougars, then they'll have to control the clock and/or score at will.
That means a heavy dose of running back Jason Huntley, who can roll up the real estate by both lugging the rock and shagging kicks. He joins Christian Gibson in the backfield again after the two combined for 1,095 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. Huntley also is electric in the return game, as he brought back three kickoffs for scores as well.
Quarterback Josh Adkins is looking to take a step forward after showing promise last season as a redshirt freshman. Adkins won his first two starts (against UTEP and Liberty), and finished the campaign with 2,563 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 57 percent of his throws.
Adkins will need to identify a new favorite target following the graduation of Jonathan Boone. Senior OJ Clark (52 rec., 512 yds., TD) could fill that role and NMSU could catch a bit of a break going up against a Washington State secondary that will be without projected starting safety Jalen Thompson. The All-Pac-12 performer was ruled ineligible in late June due to a violation of NCAA rules reportedly involving an over-the-counter supplement that contained a banned substance. Thompson entered his name for the NFL Supplemental Draft where he was taken in the fifth round by the Arizona Cardinals.
It's still an uphill battle for the Aggies, who ranked in the lower third of FBS teams in total (370.5 ypg, 97th) and scoring (25.3, 95th) offense, and fared even worse running the ball (105.3 ypg, 125th).
When Washington State Has the Ball
Without Minshew, who finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting last fall, the Cougars have to fall back down to earth offensively, right?
Guess that depends on new starting quarterback Anthony Gordon — or understudy Gage Gubrud. But even without the 2018 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award recipient, there are still plenty of weapons in Leach's arsenal.
Of the seven returning starters on offense, four are on the line. That bodes well for lead running back Max Borghi, who's tasked with keeping the ground game in motion for a team that's relied heavily on the pass under Leach, especially when Mishew was under center. In his freshman season, though, Borghi actually had more receiving yards (374) than rushing yards (366) — not surprising in an Air Raid attack.
Wazzu doesn't lack for receivers either with the top three from last season back in Davontavean Martin (69 rec., 685 yds., 8 TDs); Dezmon Patton (61, 816, 5); and Easop Winston Jr. (52, 654, 8).
Even with an inexperienced trigger-man, the Cougars should be able to exploit a New Mexico State secondary that will feature two new starters at safety. One player to watch on the Aggies defense is redshirt senior linebacker Javahn Fergurson, who led the nation in tackles per game (13.2) last season.
Minshew's absence will be felt by teammates, coaches and fans alike in Washington State's push to keep up what's been a successful run since Leach's arrival in 2012. After all, the QB helped the Cougars post the most productive aerial attack in the country last season at 373.8 passing yards per game.
But the head coach boasting a sparkling 37-15 record over the last four seasons remains in Pullman to guide a revamped offense that's still sure to wow everyone. And it's certain to overwhelm a shaky New Mexico State defense on Saturday night.