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Washington State Football: 2017 Cougars Preview and Prediction

Mike Leach, Washington State Football

Mike Leach, Washington State Football

Washington State has been a program on the rise in recent years and with prolific quarterback Luke Falk back, the Cougars should be in the mix in the Pac-12 North once again. As impressive as Falk has been, Washington State also has a surprisingly strong running game and solid offensive line to lean on. The defense has been transformed under coordinator Alex Grinch and returns plenty of experience. Mike Leach-coached teams are known for their offense, but this Cougars squad has the pieces to get the job done on the other side of the ball too.

Previewing Washington State Football’s Offense for 2017

When asked if Washington State might have the best running back unit in the Pac-12, position coach Jim Mastro replies, “I thought we did last year.”

It may hard be for those who associate head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense with prolific wide receivers to believe that the running backs are so good, and just as strange for a team returning a three-year starter and all-conference performer at quarterback to be so concerned about the ground game. But as traditionalist WSU fans have raged for years for Leach to “Run the ball more!” after every loss, the Cougars have quietly put together a group of rushers who rank among the best on the west coast.

Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams combined to rush for 1,645 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, while adding an additional 1,014 yards and seven scores catching passes — most of them short little shuttle passes that more or less function as run plays.

Those running backs, plus Keith Harrington, who was injured last year but has made big plays in the past, will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters, including 6'9", 370-pound monster left guard Cody O’Connell, a unanimous All-America selection in 2016.

Record-setting quarterback Luke Falk returns for his senior season and once again has a talented group of receivers to target, led by Tavares Martin.

Previewing Washington State’s Defense for 2017

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In Year 3 under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch — who is still under 40 — the Cougars have become faster, leaner and added depth and talent at every position.

Except, perhaps, along the defensive line. Star defensive line coach Joe Salave’a left for Oregon, and his last couple of recruiting classes were not as chock-full of mammoth defenders as the first couple. The result is that the Cougars really will bet on speed, with linebackers moving down to play at the end positions and natural defensive ends sliding inside.

The good news is that the linebacker corps has never been deeper, and the secondary has never been more athletic. Senior Peyton Pelluer will be starting at middle linebacker for the third straight year and is good for about 100 tackles per season. Frankie Luvu and Isaac Dotson provide athleticism beside Pelluer in the second level.

Robert Taylor and Jalen Thompson proved to be athletic playmakers in their first year at WSU, and the two will hold down the back end of the Cougars’ defense. In front of them, junior cornerback Darrien Molton has been a starter ever since he arrived at WSU, and sophomore Marcus Strong appears to have supplanted longtime starter Marcellus Pippins at the other corner spot.

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists for 2017

Erik Powell is one of the country’s most consistent field goal kickers — just not always in a good way. After a stellar sophomore season, he began last season by missing his first five kicks — for a while WSU was the only team in the country without a field goal. Powell turned it around and finished 9-for-15 on the season. The Cougars will need the good Powell in 2017, since he may also handle punting duties. Taylor was an explosive return man in 2016 and will likely continue those duties this season.

Final Analysis

With 17 wins over the last two seasons, the turnaround of the WSU football program is basically complete. Now, Leach just has to keep his pirate ship headed in the right direction. Last year the Cougars stayed in the hunt for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game all the way up until the last game of the regular season. With Falk and a number of playmakers returning, fans have plenty of reasons to expect to contend again in 2017.

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National Ranking: 28

Pac-12 North Prediction: 4