Fears that Washington State would end up going through a rebuilding year have evaporated at the midpoint of the season. The Cougars are in second place in the Pac-12 North and have a chance to make a big statement with three divisional opponents making trips to Pullman.
One key for Washington State (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) is finding a way to win the Apple Cup. The Cougars have not prevailed against Washington since 2012. Any hopes of claiming a divisional title will likely rest on their ability to finally overcome the Huskies. Oregon, Stanford, and Colorado also pose major challenges over the stretch run.
Once again, Washington State is winning with explosive offense. The Cougars lead the Pac-12 in total offense (485.5 ypg), passing offense (413.7 ypg), and first downs (155). They have not scored fewer than 28 points in any game this season. It would take an epic collapse over the final six games to keep them from going to a bowl game for a fourth consecutive season.
Offensive MVP: QB Gardner Minshew
No rebuilding on offense has been necessary for Washington State. Minshew is a big reason for it. The graduate transfer from East Carolina runs the air raid offense like he's done it his whole life. Through six games, he leads the Pac-12 in both passing yards (2,422) and touchdown passes (19) by a comfortable margin.
Defensive MVP: LB Peyton Pueller
Getting Pueller back for a sixth season after he received a medical waiver has been a huge blessing for the Cougars' defense. Pueller is an anchor at linebacker. His ability to be disruptive in the front seven makes it easier for the secondary to lock down in coverage. Pueller is Washington State's co-leader in tackles for a loss with 4.5 through six games.
Best Moment of First Half: Easop Winston's 89-Yard Touchdown Reception vs. Utah
Washington State shredded the Pac-12's top defense for 445 passing yards. None were bigger than Winston's score with 4:14 left. He hauled in a back shoulder grab, shed a defender and streaked down the sideline for the Cougars' only second-half points. It turned out to be a game-winning touchdown.
Best Newcomer: Gardner Minshew
The quarterback position was a genuine concern before Minshew came aboard, due to an overwhelming lack of experience. He has helped keep the offense stable and given Mike Leach a chance to let the younger quarterbacks spend a year learning the system and getting comfortable with the offense.
Biggest Surprise: Washington State's Passing Defense
There were some questions as to whether or not the Cougars could maintain the same level on defense under a new coordinator this season. Through six games, Washington State has proven it can still be strong on that side of the ball. For a second straight season, the Cougars are leading the Pac-12 in pass defense. They are allowing just 165.5 yards per game through the air.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Could Gardner Minshew reach 5,000 passing yards?
Both Luke Falk and Connor Halliday had 4,500-yard seasons during their Washington State careers. Could Minshew take it a step further? It's not out of the realm of possibilities. The senior is averaging 403.7 passing yards per game. He's currently on pace for more than 4,800 yards in the regular season. If the Cougars make a bowl game, a 5,000-yard season could be in the works.
2. Will the Cougars produce a 1,000-yard receiver?
One reason why quarterbacks tend to be so proficient in the air raid offense is that they spread the ball around. Mike Leach uses a big rotation of receivers and running backs in the pass game. Gabe Marks was the last receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season when he had 1,192 yards in 2015. Right now, no Washington State receiver projects to finish with 1,000 yards. The closest is Davontavean Martin, who has a team-best 440 yards through six games.
3. Can Washington State break through and get a Pac-12 North title?
Five of the six remaining opponents on Washington State's schedule have been ranked at some point during the season. The Cougars get the two toughest — Washington and Oregon — at home. Only two road games remain. If Washington State can come out of October with back-to-back wins over the Ducks and Stanford, the Cougars may have a shot at finally getting over the hump and reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 23 Washington
The Huskies have had the upper hand in the Apple Cup, winning eight of the last nine in the rivalry series. Washington State has lost by double digits five consecutive years. It could be a challenge again with Jake Browning (1,751 passing yards) and Myles Gaskin (623 rushing yards) still powering the offense to go along with one of the nation's best defenses.
2. Oct. 20 Oregon
No team will put Washington State's top-ranked pass defense to the test more than the high-flying Ducks. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in scoring offense (43.0 ppg) and total offense (482.8 ypg) largely because the Ducks possess an explosive aerial attack. Justin Herbert has thrown for 1,613 yards and 17 touchdowns in six games.
3. Oct. 27 at Stanford
Washington State owns a two-game winning streak over the Cardinal. This is a game that always offers an interesting contrast in style. Stanford employs a physical run-oriented attack while the Cougars prefer to go the pass-happy route. If Bryce Love is healthy, slowing down Stanford on the ground will offer a significant challenge.
4. Nov. 10 at Colorado
Scratching out a win in Boulder in November won't be an easy task. Colorado raced off to a 5-0 start and possesses an efficient offense capable of making big plays. The Buffaloes have a solid one-two punch in quarterback Steven Montez and running back Travon McMillian. Montez's 70.5 completion percentage leads Pac-12 quarterbacks.
5. Nov. 3 vs California
A lack of consistent offensive production has caused California to fizzle after a 3-0 start. Still, the Cougars aren't a team to take the Bears lightly. Washington State will be looking to dish out some revenge after getting pounded 37-3 a year ago when California created a flurry of turnovers to ground the Cougars' offense.
6. Nov. 17 Arizona
Not much has gone right for the Wildcats this season. Khalil Tate has been limited by a nagging ankle injury and the Arizona offense has largely been ineffective as a result. Tate ran for 146 yards and threw for 275 yards against the Cougars last season, so if he isn't back to full strength this time around, the rematch could play out much differently for the Wildcats.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of wsucougars.com)