Luke Falk has a chance to end his Washington State career not only with all of the records, but potentially a Pac-12 title too
Few teams have exceeded expectations to the degree Washington State has done it early in the season. The No. 8 Cougars (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) are riding their best start since 2001 and show no signs of slowing down.
Will Washington State ride early momentum all the way to a Pac-12 North title? The Cougars certainly seem capable of doing it. Mike Leach's team is armed with a defense that stifles opponents as frequently as his Air Raid offense shreds those same teams.
Here's a look back at Washington State's season to this point and a glance at what lies ahead:
Offensive MVP: QB Luke Falk
When he finally closes the book on his college football career, Falk will likely own the lion's share of Pac-12 passing records. Falk's journey has taken him from lightly recruited walk-on to one of the nation's best passers. Falk is the NCAA's active career leader in passing yards (12,888), touchdown passes (108) and total offense (12,562). He leads the nation in touchdown passes (19) and is third in passing yards (2,000).
Defensive MVP: DL Hercules Mata'afa
If there is one player who is the driving force behind Washington State's tough defense, it is Mata'afa. He has carved out a niche as one of the nation's best defensive lineman. Through six games, the junior leads the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss (10) and is the co-leader in sacks (4.5). For his career, Mata'afa has tallied 33 stops behind the line of scrimmage and 15 QB takedowns. He is Pac-12's active leader in career TFLs.
Best Moment of First Half: Derek Moore's fumble recovery against USC
The signature moment of Washington State's upset win over the Trojans came when USC tried to mount a final scoring drive in the final two minutes. It came to an end when Jahad Woods sacked Sam Darnold on a blitz on second down. Woods popped the ball loose on the sack and Derek Moore jumped on the fumble to ice the win for the Cougars.
Best Newcomer: LB Jahad Woods
Woods has been a revelation since becoming a starter at inside linebacker. Woods ranks third on the team with 27 tackles and is a disruptive force in the middle. The redshirt freshman tallied a season-high nine tackles against USC, which included the late sack where he forced Darnold to commit the game-clinching fumble in the Cougars' win.
Biggest Surprise: K Erik Powell
Unlike last season, Powell has not endured any struggles in the kicking game. After missing his first five field goal attempts of 2016, the senior has been money since that time. Powell finished out his junior season making nine of 10 field goals. He is 12-of-13 on field goals through six games this year. His made field goal percentage (.923) is tied for second in the Pac-12.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can Washington State stay strong on pass defense?
One area where the Cougars have excelled is their pass defense. Washington State limits opponents to a league-best 146.3 passing yards per game. Boise State is the only team to pass for more than 200 yards against the Cougars this season. It starts with the intense pressure that Washington State dishes out to opposing quarterbacks. The Cougars rank in the top 15 nationally both in sacks (21) and tackles for a loss (49). Such pressure has made it easier to produce takeaways as well. Washington State leads the league in turnovers gained (15) and fumble recoveries (7).
2. How far can Luke Falk go in shattering records?
Falk is on track to own virtually every Pac-12 passing record that matters before the season ends. He has already rewritten the Washington State record books. The senior is already the career leader in passing yards, total offense, touchdown passes, career 300-yard games (27) and wins for a quarterback (24). Falk has 12,888 passing yards, which ranks as the third-highest total in Pac-12 history. He needs only 713 yards to pass Sean Mannion for first place.
3. Will the Cougars avoid stumbling down the stretch?
There is a small sense of déjà vu in Washington State's hot start this season. The Cougars ripped off seven straight wins in Pac-12 play a year ago before stumbling down the stretch. They closed 2016 with three straight losses to Colorado, Washington and Minnesota and averaged just 17.6 points per game in that stretch. The Cougars' improved defense should help them avoid a similar finish this season as long as the offense stays consistent.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 25 at Washington
Could the Apple Cup turn into a battle of undefeated teams? The idea isn't as impossible as it seemed before the season, although Utah and Stanford offer realistic November road blocks to that scenario. Washington is one of the nation's best all-around teams again. The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in rushing defense (78.5 ypg), total defense (228.8 ypg) and scoring defense (10.2 ppg). Breaking a four-game losing streak in the Apple Cup won't be easy for the Cougars.
2. Nov. 11 at Utah
Will Troy Taylor be a thorn in Washington State's side again? The Utah offensive coordinator directed the Eastern Washington offense when the Eagles stunned the Cougars in 2016. If sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley is healthy, he can make the Utes dangerous on offense. Huntley has totaled 1,174 yards on offense and completed 73.3 percent of his passes in four games.
3. Nov. 4 Stanford
The Cardinal will go as far as Bryce Love can take them. Since Love is the nation's leading rusher, that means a promising destination for Stanford. No team has held the junior under 150 yards on the ground so far this season. Love has piled up 1,240 yards in just six games. It means that the Cardinal could be a dark horse Pac-12 North title contender in November.
4. Oct. 28 at Arizona
After winning a single Pac-12 game a year ago, the Wildcats are trending upward this season. Arizona boasts the league's top rushing offense, with 1,609 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. The Wildcats average 321.8 yards on the ground per game. Quarterbacks Khalil Tate and Brandon Dawkins have combined for 771 rushing yards. Both players rank in the top 10 in the Pac-12 for total rushing yards.
5. Oct. 21 Colorado
The Buffaloes have suffered a downturn in fortunes since winning the Pac-12 South title last season. Colorado has opened league play with three straight losses and has struggled to get stops on defense. The Buffs are giving up an average of 7.3 yards per play against Pac-12 opponents. Still, Colorado can present challenges on offense. Phillip Lindsay is the school record-holder for all-purpose yards (4,989).
6. Oct. 13 at California
A promising start is now a distant memory for the Bears. California has lost three straight against Pac-12 opponents while allowing 37.7 points per game. Pass defense has emerged the biggest issue for the Bears. They are giving up 264.0 yards through the air per game, ranking 10th in the league in that category. Such a weakness is guaranteed to spell disaster against Washington State's offense.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.