Washington State football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Cougars, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the Washington State Offense
The Cougars were a good offensive team in 2015, which is the bare minimum expectation for Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack. But Leach and his players hope to be a notch or two more prolific in 2016, thanks in large part to the return of Luke Falk, one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks.
Falk far exceeded expectations in his first full season as a starter, throwing 38 touchdown passes and leading Wazzu to road wins over Rutgers, Oregon, Arizona and UCLA.
This fall, he returns a cadre of talented receivers, including Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Tavares Martin Jr. Plus, Clemson transfer Kyrin Priester is making a nice transition to the slot, and blue-chip recruit Isaiah Johnson has already cracked the two-deep.
Two areas worth watching this summer are the backfield and the left side of a line breaking in new sophomore starters at tackle (Andre Dillard) and guard (Cody O’Connell). The ground game, not a focus in Pullman, could also be more dangerous if redshirt freshman James Williams continues to command a bigger role.
Biggest Key To The Washington State Offense
Rebuilding the left side of the line. The Cougars expect to once again roll on offense, with the returns of QB Luke Falk and an outstanding collection of backs and receivers. But the left side of the O-line, a fortress headlined by Detroit Lion draft pick Joe Dahl in 2015, is now a question mark. The responsibility of Falk’s blindside now belongs to sophomore LT Andre Dillard, a blocker the staff really likes, and sophomore Cody O’Connell, a 6-8, 351-pounder with the brute strength to overpower opposing linemen when he locks on.
What You Need to Know About the Washington State Defense
Coordinator Alex Grinch authored a terrific debut with the Cougars. If he can build off 2015, ADs could begin kicking his tires about a head job. Grinch arrived from Mizzou with a few simple messages to his players—play fast, create chaos and find ways to quickly get the ball back to the offense.
Foregoing size for speed and tenacity, the directives largely worked. Washington State delivered one of its best defensive seasons in years, allowing just 13 touchdown passes.
But while the pass defense will again be a strength, led by a veteran secondary, the run D remains a worry. The Cougs yielded almost five yards a carry, and a chunk of the front seven was lost to graduation. To build on 2015, Grinch needs run stoppers and pass rushers to step up and support DE Hercules Mata’afa, DT Daniel Ekuale and MLB Peyton Pelluer.
Based on their play during the offseason, the staff is optimistic rush linebacker Logan Tago and WLB Frankie Luvu are poised to take the next step as regulars. Tago and Dylan Hanser will continue battling this summer for one of the more important openings on the entire defense.
Biggest Key To The Washington State Defense
> Searching for sacks. Coordinator Alex Grinch is a rising star on the Palouse, a trend that’ll continue if he can quickly find successors for Ivan McClennan, Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo and Kache Palacio, who accounted for 22.5 of the 2015 team’s 33 sacks. Sophomore DE Hercules Mata’afa is the newest star of the front seven, but fingers are crossed that rush linebackers Logan Tago and Dylan Hanser, among others, can also use their good size and quickness to wreak havoc on opposing backfields.
Washington State Will Be Far Better If …
the special teams evolves into an asset. There’s a lot to like about the Cougar offense and defense, but the program’s third unit leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than boost either side of the ball, the special teamers were a drain, making life harder on the O and the D. In 2015, Washington State lacked pop in the return game, allowed 14.4 yards per punt return and showcased weak legs on kickoffs and punts. If the Cougs can get their special teams in order, everyone is going to benefit.
Best Offensive Player
Junior QB Luke Falk. Every Mike Leach quarterback hangs up stats. Falk, though, also wins games, the most important barometer of success for a QB. He not only threw 38 touchdown passes to just eight picks in his debut as a full-timer, but he also led the Cougars to nine wins, the school’s most in more than a decade. It was the kind of season that earned Falk Heisman chatter before he was injured late in the year. His grasp of the Air Raid, coupled with the return of so many good receivers, portends another terrific season for the junior.
Best Defensive Player
Sophomore DE Hercules Mata’afa. Wazzu is revamping the front seven after losing five key players to graduation. That rebuilding will be done around Mata’afa, who led the team in sacks as a redshirt freshman a year ago. The Cougars take pride in bringing enough pressure to force opponents into mistakes. Mata’afa is the new front man of that approach, using his strength, quickness and motor to get around the edge and into the backfield in a hurry.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The cornerbacks, sophomore Darrien Moulton and juniors Charleston White and Marcellus Pippins. The Cougars did a very nice job against the pass last season, allowing just 13 touchdown throws. The team will need to be even tighter this fall, with the rush expected to be a little less effective as the front seven rebuilds. Wazzu loves its talent mix in the defensive backfield, including senior FS Shalom Luani and rookie SS Jalen Thompson. It’ll be up to the DBs to become the defensive bedrock as the linemen and linebackers adjust to new roles.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
Wazzu dismisses any thoughts that last season was a fluke. The upcoming year for Mike Leach and his crew is all about consistency and sustainability. True, going 9-4 in 2015 was huge, but building momentum and exhibiting staying power in 2016 is nearly as important to the future of the program. Matching last year’s mark would be outstanding, but even going 8-5, which would mean back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 13 years, would serve as another important building block for Leach, his assistants and all of his players.
Nov. 25 vs. Washington. The Cougar administration is thrilled with Mike Leach and the direction of his program. If there’s one gripe, it’s that Wazzu has dropped six of the last seven to the Huskies in the Apple Cup, including three in a row under the current leadership. The Cougars were hammered last November in Seattle, 45-10, as starting QB Luke Falk looked on with a concussion. And they want nothing more than to return the favor this season versus a U-Dub team also bucking to be the 2016 surprise squad out of the Pac-12 North.
2015 Fun Stats
– Passing yards per game: Washington State 389.5 – Opponents 223.8
– Sacks: Washington State 33 – Opponents 41
– Second-quarter scoring: Washington State 142 – Opponents 74