A program merely seeking relevance in the first years of the Mike Leach era has now established itself as a year-in, year-out contender in the Pac-12 North, and even as Washington State tries to replace the most popular quarterback to come through Pullman in two decades, the Cougars still believe they should be competing for a league title in 2019. Rightly so.
Over the last four years, Washington State has compiled a record of 26–10 in Pac-12 games — not to mention an overall mark of 37–15 — as Leach’s Air Raid offense continues to register astronomical passing numbers. The positive momentum is manifested in the win streaks the Cougars have compiled against various North rivals: three straight against Stanford, four in a row against Oregon and five consecutive against Oregon State.
But the Cougars know that they may not capture a division title until another run comes to an end. They have lost their last six games to cross-state rival Washington — many of those deciding the division title — and a 13-point loss to the Huskies in the 2018 Apple Cup was one of the only blemishes on an otherwise superb season.
Previewing Washington State's Offense for 2019
Gardner Minshew’s one-year loan went better than anyone could have anticipated, as the transfer quarterback broke the Pac-12’s single-season passing record, finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting and became a cult hero. The graduate transfer route worked so well the first time that the Cougars took another dip and emerged with Gage Gubrud, a former FCS All-American who accumulated more than 11,000 yards of offense and 100 total touchdowns at Eastern Washington — and, ironically, defeated WSU in his first career start.
To win the job, Gubrud has to overcome an ankle injury and beat out two eager seniors — Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley — who’ve spent significantly more time with Leach’s playbook.
The Cougars return seven of the receivers who figure into Leach’s eight-man rotation. Collectively, they caught 297 passes and had 30 touchdowns in 2018. Outside targets Davontavean Martin and Dezmon Patmon led the group in catches, with 69 and 61, respectively, and both still have lots of untapped potential. Slot receiver Renard Bell had just 20 receptions, but he turned five of those into TDs.
James Williams fled to the NFL a year early, so sophomore Max Borghi should see a major uptick in playing time as the team’s primary running back. That’s not awful news for Cougar fans. A rugged runner with terrific hands, Borghi accounted for 12 touchdowns as a true freshman and averaged more than five yards per carry.
The offensive line was outstanding in protection last season, giving up just one sack every 52 pass attempts. WSU loses one of the country’s most reliable tackles in Andre Dillard, but four other starters return.
Previewing Washington State's Defense for 2019
They changed coordinators, but the Cougars retained many of the principles and philosophies that have been key to their defensive renaissance. The result? For the fourth straight season, WSU trimmed the opponent’s scoring average and improved in almost every other major category.
The most intriguing newcomer on either side could be nose tackle Lamonte McDougle, who’s coming off a redshirt after transferring from West Virginia. McDougle’s dad, Stockar, played offensive line for Leach at Oklahoma in the 1990s.
Peyton Pelluer, an accomplished linebacker and leader, is gone after six years, but the Cougars bring back three redshirt juniors in Jahad Woods, Dillon Sherman and Justus Rogers. Those three have played lots of football, but one will have to take on Pelluer’s vocal responsibilities. “I’ve got to step up and be that leader,” Woods says.
The defensive backfield returns two players who started last year, but the Cougars did some mixing and matching in the spring to ensure that the best five will be on the field in the fall. That resulted in a position move for Skyler Thomas, who’s switching from free safety to nickel, where his dependable tackling could be put to better use. More movement and changes could be needed in the secondary in the fall after Jalen Thompson lost his final year of eligibility and entered the NFL's supplemental draft.
Previewing Washington State's Specialists for 2019
The field goal unit could use some fine-tuning after having two kicks blocked in 2018, but the Cougars are in good shape otherwise. Kicker Blake Mazza returns after booting the game winner against Stanford last season, as does strong-legged punter Oscar Draguicevich (45.7-yard average). Travell Harris brought back one kickoff for a TD in 2018, and the sophomore needs just one more for the school record.
The Air Raid is as good as its quarterback. If that wasn’t apparent already, Minshew’s magical 2018 season reaffirmed it. But the Cougars can probably afford to regress some behind center, if only because they return seven starters on offense. The defense could realistically get better — again — in its second year with coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Reaching the postseason for the sixth time in seven years shouldn’t be an issue, but now there are heightened expectations for the 2018 Alamo Bowl champs. The only way to satisfy them may be to claim the Pac-12 North and snap a long, painful drought against Washington.