Welcome to the Palouse, where one step forward is typically followed by one in reverse.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
A season after a breakthrough bowl appearance, Wazzu plummeted back to its old familiar ways with a 3-9 record. Yeah, there were moral victories, such as close calls with Oregon and Cal, but at the end of the day the Cougars have now gone 11 consecutive years without a winning record. Life has become rather predictable in Pullman: The passing game will ring up gaudy numbers, the defense will be overmatched … and colorful Mike Leach will become increasingly frustrated by being the head coach at one of the two most difficult places to win in the Pac-12.
Leach doesn’t plan to deviate from his usual playbook, despite last season’s detour. His young quarterbacks, Luke Falk and Peyton Bender, will largely operate out of shotgun formations, winging the ball around the field at a dizzying rate. Backs Gerald Wicks and Jamal Morrow will primarily be used as pass protectors and pass receivers, while receivers Dominique Williams, Gabe Marks and River Cracraft pile up big numbers on the receiving end of Wazzu’s flurry of quick strikes. What the Cougars now need from the offense is more scoring, because 31.8 points per game is inadequate for a school whose identity is tied so closely to its wide-open attack.
You’re a brave soul, Alex Grinch. Grinch Leach’s latest defensive coordinator, a thankless assignment wrought with all kinds of built-in stumbling blocks. In Leach’s world, defense will always be a relative afterthought, reflected in the caliber of defenders recruited and the salaries paid to assistant coaches. Grinch must operate within a framework that relies upon 60-plus passes a game and truncated offensive drives. He’ll learn early on that his kids will often be gassed, demoralized and on the field longer than their peers. However, that hasn’t stopped the energetic young coach from demanding more tempo-changing plays from his Cougars this fall.
The optimism that existed in 2013 has been replaced in part by concern and a sense of business as usual on the Palouse. Leach needs to recapture the momentum he had two years ago, when the Cougars snapped a decade-long bowl drought. Doing so, though, will need to be a cooperative effort that sees contributions from beyond just the mile-a-minute passing game. To compete more effectively in the Pac-12, Wazzu needs additional support from a shopworn defense and a shaky special teams unit that have been longstanding liabilities in this region.
What you need to know about the offense: There’ll be few mysteries surrounding the Wazzu attack this season, an Air Raid production helmed by Mike Leach. The Cougars will throw liberally, as much as any program in the FBS, resulting in monster numbers for QB Luke Falk or his chief contender, Peyton Bender. However, the quarterbacks will take a few more snaps under center, as opposed to exclusively out of the shotgun, in an effort to better mesh with their skill sets. Access to quality receivers will not be a problem. Dominique Williams, River Cracraft and Gabe Marks, who sat out 2014, will make sure of it. Execution and efficiency, however, might be different matters. A year ago, the Cougars ranked second in the Pac-12 in total offense, yet were just seventh in the league in scoring, the result of turnovers and stalled drives. This season, it’s incumbent on a veteran line and the new quarterback, likely Falk, to spearhead an offense that produces more points per possession.
What you need to know about the defense: New coordinator Alex Grinch arrived from Missouri with a few simple messages to his new players—play fast, create chaos and find ways to quickly get the ball back to the offense. Grinch will forego size for speed and playmaking ability, especially after Wazzu tied for last nationally with eight takeaways in 2014. The Cougars will operate out of a 3-4 nickel package that puts an additional defensive back on the field to support a pass defense that ranked 124th in FBS efficiency. Help for the overmatched secondary could come from a pair of capable rush ends, Kache Palacio and Ivan McClennan, who both belong on the field in some capacity. And Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer lead a promising group of linebackers. But improvement in 2015 rests squarely on the development of the defensive backfield. Four sophomores could start, though Darius Lemora and Taylor Taliulu are already seasoned, and CB Charleston White and hard-hitting FS Isaac Dotson have promising futures in Pullman.
What to watch for on offense: Is Falk still the chalk? Sophomore Luke Falk earned valuable reps last fall when Connor Halliday went down, and he played well throughout the spring as the favorite. But redshirt freshman Peyton Bender didn’t back down or buckle at the prospect of playing from behind. In fact, the ball really jumps out of his hand. While Falk is still likely to be the guy when Portland State visits on Sept. 5, the Cougars have learned this offseason that quarterback looks to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
What to watch for on defense: Choosing speed over bulk. The hiring of Alex Grinch as the new coordinator means Washington State will favor undersized athletes with the range to wreak havoc from sideline-to-sideline. It’s a good thing, too, since the Cougars usually attract undersized defenders. Wazzu isn’t going to stand up opposing offenses in 2015, especially in league play. So, rather than fight reality, Grinch is embracing it. If you can fly all over—and create turnovers—you have a place on the rookie coordinator’s D.
The team will be far better if… it shifts the turnover margin dynamic. The Cougars tied for last nationally with eight takeaways, while turning the ball over a Pac-12-high 25 times. Finishing minus-17 in turnover margin is something no program can overcome, let alone Washington State. It must improve on offense and defense, jumping more routes on D, while getting better decisions from their own quarterbacks. This program has to start doing the little things better, including special teams, which has been a perennial nightmare in Pullman.
– There’s cautious optimism around Pullman that the Cougars can get off to a fast start, hosting Portland State and Wyoming, while making the long trip to the East Coast to play Rutgers.
– October, though, will determine the bar for this team. Wazzu plays five tough games in the month, a visit from Stanford and road games at Cal, Oregon and Arizona.
– USC is not on this year’s slate, but UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State are. And the Cougars will face them—as well as Stanford—as part of a nasty four-game stretch that begins Oct. 24 and ends on Nov. 14.
– This year’s bye week is unusually early, appearing on Sept. 26 after just three games. This program, which will so often play as the underdog, would have benefitted from a break in October.
– Wazzu plays six road games, but leaves the state just five times. And its only back-to-back trips, Cal and Oregon on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, is preceded by that Week 4 Saturday of inactivity.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Wyoming. The Cougars are in no position to take anyone lightly, especially a Cowboy program capable of playing keep-away with the backfield tandem of Brian Hill and Shaun Wick.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Dominique Williams. Williams lit up his teammates during the spring, a harbinger of things to come in the fall. The senior has been one of the many pass-catching beneficiaries of the hiring of Mike Leach four years ago, flourishing into a dangerous playmaker from “X” receiver. Williams is the homerun hitter of this Cougar receiving corps, gliding past defenders and beneath his quarterback’s toss. He’ll get a shot to play in the NFL after testing Pac-12 DBs for one final year.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Jeremiah Allison. Allison is peaking at a most opportune moment in his career. He’s shaken off a quiet first two years in Pullman to become one of Washington State most relentless defenders. From weakside, he can make plays in all directions, and he’s arguably the most instinctive Cougar on this side of the ball. On a team that’s putting out APBs for playmakers in 2015, Allison will be the catalyst for a unit hell-bent on chaos and turnovers.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Luke Falk. This is Mike Leach’s team. And if the quarterback isn’t performing up to the coach’s standard, the rest of the program is going to cave accordingly. Oh, and numbers alone won’t cut it for Falk. All of Leach’s quarterback ring up gaudy numbers. Falk must build off last season’s table-setting debut by moving the offense with efficiency and a dearth of mistakes. Last year’s 18 interceptions need to be reduced, even as the Cougs air it out 60 times a game.
The season will be a success if … the Cougars can find six wins on the schedule. Yeah, they won just three times in 2014, but it was just two years ago that Mike Leach took this program to the New Mexico Bowl. Leach’s systems are firmly in place, which should help as QB Luke Falk prepares to take over for Connor Halliday on a full-time basis. Plus, a schedule that begins with Portland State, Rutgers, Wyoming and Cal is built for a fast start. If Leach misses the postseason for a second consecutive year, his shtick could start wearing real thin on the Palouse.
Key game: Nov. 27 at Washington State. No game on the schedule matters more to the Cougars each year than the annual Apple Cup with in-state nemesis Washington. The Huskies have won two straight in the series, and five of the last six, but they could be in a rebuilding stance in 2015. Naturally, Wazzu will want to capitalize on its rival’s misfortune, particularly since both schools might need this victory to punch a ticket to the postseason.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Passing yards per game: Washington State 477.7 – Opponents 296.6
– First-quarter scoring: Washington State 55 – Opponents 107
– Takeaways: Washington State 8 – Opponents 25
Players You Need To Know
1. WR Dominique Williams, Sr.
Williams has been good in Pullman. The Cougars are hoping he reaches great now that Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers have graduated. In three years, Williams has caught 117 passes for 1,849 yards and 19 touchdowns, including a career-best 43 receptions and nine scoring grabs in 2014. He’s one of the homerun hitters of the receiving corps, using the long gait of a 6-2, 199-pounder and good speed to take the top off defenses. In this offense, there exists an opportunity for No. 80 to deliver his best season at Wazzu.
2. WR River Cracraft, Jr.
Now that Wazzu has lost its top two receivers to graduation, Cracraft will be asked to play an even bigger part of the offensive attack. He’s been a reliable playmaker through two years in the slot, catching 66 passes for 771 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014. Cracraft conducts himself like a fifth-year senior, running good routes, keeping the ball away from his body and showing a habit for finding the sticks. In many ways, the 6-0, 198-pounder is exactly what Mike Leach wants in a weapon, consistent, hard-working and not prone to a lot of self-promotion.
3. LB Jeremiah Allison, Sr.
Prior to last October, Allison had never started a game for the Cougars. He made up for lost time over the final two-thirds of 2014. Allison replaced Tana Pritchard at weakside in Week 4 and never left the starting lineup. The 6-2, 228-pounder from Los Angeles ended up second on the team with 78 tackles, including 8.5 stops for minus yards and 3.5 sacks. More than just an athlete, Allison excels in the classroom and is a member of the AFCA Good Works Team for his efforts in the community.
4. WR Gabe Marks, Jr.
Marks is back following a redshirt season, determined to pick up where he left off. In his first two seasons out of Venice (Calif.) High School, he caught 123 balls for 1,367 yards and nine touchdowns, posting career-best numbers as a sophomore. The 6-0, 190-pound Marks is a dynamic all-around athlete and playmaker. But he needs to polish up his performance, on and away from the field. Drops and fading production became issues late in Marks’ second year, as did a general lack of maturity.
5. DE Kache Palacio, Sr.
Palacio does one thing really well—get after the quarterback—which is why he’s been a natural fit at rush end, a blend of outside linebacker and end. He operates with so much intensity and fearlessness that it often overshadows an unpolished set of fundamentals. The 6-2, 235-pound Palacio simply wants to see the man and then blow up the man, particularly in the backfield. In his first year as a full-timer, he made 57 tackles, nine stops behind the line and a Cougar-best 6.5 sacks.
6. OT Joe Dahl, Sr.
On an offensive line that’s steadily improving and gaining seasoning, Dahl is the best of the bunch. He’s started 25 consecutive games as a Cougar, consistently being voted the team’s best blocker last fall. The 6-4, 302-pound former Montana transfer didn’t allow a sack from left tackle until late in the year to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition. While Dahl is built like a guard, he has the feet of a tackle at this level.
7. QB Luke Falk, Soph.
Nothing will be handed to Falk by Mike Leach. But the former walk-on has the early edge to be Connor Halliday’s full-time successor. Falk got chewed up and spit out during the recruiting process, and Wazzu couldn’t be happier that he wound up on the Palouse. He won the backup job and supplanted an injured Halliday, debuting with 13 touchdowns, seven picks and 1,859 yards on 156-of-243 passing. The 6-4, 201-pounder is young, but he’s smart, uncommonly poised and quick to get the ball out of his hand.
8. OG Gunnar Eklund, Sr.
Eklund is a microcosm of the Washington State front wall this season—big, experienced and determined to turn his unit into one of the team’s strengths in 2015. The 6-7, 308-pounder has started 32 career games in Pullman, 19 at left tackle and 13 at left guard. He’ll be manning left guard again this fall, using his long arms, know-how and motor to keep opposing rushers out of the pocket.
9. SS Taylor Taliulu, Sr.
As a third-year starter, Taliulu is the veteran of the Wazzu secondary. He’s started 10 games in each of the last two seasons, making a career-best 66 tackles, two forced fumbles and four passes defended in 2014. The hard-hitting 5-11, 210-pounder won’t be a major player in pass defense. But he can pack a punch, and he’s charge forward like a linebacker on running downs. Taliulu will be the Cougars’ enforcer out of the defensive backfield this fall.
10. NB Darius Lemora, Soph.
The Cougars are shifting to a nickel base package, and Lemora is in line to fill the role as the extra defensive back in the secondary. He chipped in nicely as a safety a year ago, making 68 tackles in just 11 games. New coordinator Alex Grinch wants his nickelback to be versatile and fearless, two of Lemora’s chief attributes. The second-year Cougar will fly all over the field, playing bigger than his 5-11, 192-pound frame.