Washington State aims to recover from a tumultuous first half to compete in the Pac-12 North
The 2018 season marked a four-year culmination for Washington State football. Beginning in 2015, the Cougars broke through under head coach Mike Leach with the right blend of explosive, pass-heavy offense and opportunistic defense to emerge as Pac-12 North contenders.
Washington State was in the hunt each year from 2015 through '18, and though the Cougars never won the conference, last season brought unprecedented success on the Palouse. Behind quarterback Gardner Minshew and a unique, feisty defense, Washington State won 11 games for the first time in program history. The squad earned a place in the annals of Washington State alongside the 1997 season and 2002 season Rose Bowl teams.
The 2019 campaign began without Minshew or left tackle Andre Dillard, both of whom are now starting in the NFL. But Leach's offensive scheme and the defense of coordinator Tracy Claeys both had ample playmakers for Washington State to again contend for the North — at least, that was the thought.
Washington State hits the midway point of its season winless in Pac-12 play at 0-3 and without Claeys, who stepped down after the Cougars gave up 67 points to UCLA in a historic comeback, then were blown out by Utah the next week. The Cougars must now regroup in order to salvage 2019.
Offensive MVP: QB Anthony Gordon
Although it's a bit cliche to heap praise on a quarterback in Washington State's version of the air raid, Gordon's numbers warrant it. The senior bided his time to earn the starting spot, and has delievered with 2,612 yards on 211 completions and a 71.3 accuracy rate. His 25 touchdown passes are eight more than the next-most prolific touchdown-thrower in the Pac-12.
Defensive MVP: LB Jahad Woods
Pretty much anywhere on the field, Woods is able to make a play. Woods is a tackling machine with 58 through the Cougars' first six games. He also has three pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. Watching Woods play, he looks capable of stepping in at linebacker, defensive end or safety -- he's that versatile.
Best Moment of the First Half: Gardner Minshew in the House for Anthony Gordon's Record-Setting Night
While the end result did not go favorably for Washington State, Gordon breaking Minshew's program record for touchdown passes in a game was a special moment. Gordon threw for nine scores in the epic collapse against UCLA, with Minshew at Martin Stadium to take it in. Minshew threw seven in a rout of Arizona last November. The newly minted Jacksonville Jaguars starting quarterback had the weekend open after leading his pro team to a win the previous Thursday night over Tennessee.
Best Newcomer: Nickelback Pat Nunn
Although not technically a newcomer — he exercised the NCAA's four-game redshirt rule in 2018, appearing three times — Nunn is a key contributor in his first full season. Nunn's appeared in all six games at the nickelback position, contributing two tackles for a loss with a pass breakup and forced fumble. The latter two contributions came in Washington State's last two outing, at Utah and Arizona State.
Biggest Surprise: Tracy Claeys' Resignation
The former Minnesota coach filled big shoes when he came to Washington State last season to replace Alex Grinch. Grinch virtually saved the Leach era with his arrival, elevating one of the nation's worst defenses into one of the most unique and effective. Claeys' first season on the Palouse was outstanding: The Cougars held opponents to 23.3 points per game, an excellent yield for a team that plays a tempo as fast as Washington State favors.
This season was another story, particularly at the beginning of Pac-12 play. But to predict Claeys' exit after bad showings against UCLA and Utah would be going out on an especially narrow limb.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Rebuilding the defense
A midseason coaching move isn't unprecedented in Leach's tenure at Washington State. In 2014, the Cougars changed special teams coordinators following a disastrous outing against Cal. A new look on defense has also been a boon to the program under the current regime: The addition of Alex Grinch before the 2015 season transformed the Cougars from also-rans to annual contenders in the Pac-12 North.
Tracy Claeys' defense shined in 2018, but the struggles into Pac-12 play this season underscored the disappointing start. How the unit progresses under Roc Bellantoni and Darcel McBath will shape the second half of 2019.
2. Anthony Gordon's production
Even in an offense that routinely leads the nation in passing production, Gordon is on a noteworthy pace. He'd easily surpass 5,000 yards at the current rate, a number Minshew didn't hit in 13 games a season ago. In fact, no one's passed for 5,000 yards since Patrick Mahomes in 2016, and no quarterback has thrown for 50 touchdowns since Derek Carr in 2013. Carr hit both 50 scores and 5,000 yards that season, albeit in 13 games. Gordon's on a pace to do both in 12.
3. Facing the North
An element to Washington State's slow Pac-12 start worth considering: The Cougars have yet to face a team from the North. Although divisional games aren't weighted any more heavily than crossovers, having all the North games on the back-half does help the Cougars' cause somewhat.
Washington State gets the opportunity to hand each of the other five North teams one of the three losses the Cougars need them to have — and all but pace-setting Oregon have already lost twice. Cal dropped games to Arizona State and Oregon; Oregon State to Stanford and Utah; Stanford to USC and Oregon; and Washington to Cal and Stanford.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 26 at Oregon
While Washington State's had Oregon's number in recent years, winning each of the last four, the 2019 Ducks are different animals. The defense is one of the best in the nation, reminiscent of the recent Washington Huskies defense that has given the Cougars so many fits in the Apple Cup. Autzen Stadium should be rocking with dreams of a Pac-12 title — especially if the Ducks are coming off a defeat of Washington the week prior.
2. Nov. 29 at Washington
The Apple Cup has repeated eluded Washington State in Mike Leach's tenure. Against either Steve Sarkisian or Chris Petersen, Leach has just one win. That came in his first season on the Palouse. The Huskies' talented defense creates matchup nightmares for the air raid.
3. Nov. 9 at Cal
The loss of quarterback Chase Garbers hamstrung a resurgent Cal offense, but the defense remains one of the toughest in college football. Linebacker Evan Weaver is a one-man wrecking crew, and the secondary features some of the greediest playmakers in the Pac-12. That could be a problem for a pass-heavy offense.
4. Nov. 16 vs. Stanford
Washington State's taken three straight from Stanford, including a raucous come-from-behind win last season on the Farm. This year's return matchup at Martin Stadium sees a Stanford team that has had flashes of greatness amid confounding stretches of uncharacteristic stagnation.
5. Nov. 23 vs. Oregon State
The Cougars and Beavers combined for 93 points in the first meeting with Jonathan Smith at the helm of Oregon State. Smith's offensive touch has made the cellar-dwelling Beavs one of the most exciting teams in the Pac-12, even if it isn't showing up in the win-loss column yet. They are reminiscent of some of the early Washington State teams under Leach, and could be poised for a major upset in the late juncture of the season.
6. Oct. 19 vs. Colorado
Coming off a tough near-miss at Arizona State, Washington State returns home for the first time since the UCLA debacle. The Cougars will be looking to make a statement in front of their Martin Stadium crowd against a Colorado team licking its wounds from losses to Arizona and a blowout defeat at Oregon.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.