Preview 2017: Washington State Cougars
Previewing and looking ahead at the Washington State Cougars season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Washington State Offense
The Cougar offense loses two of its three best receivers. There. That’s the issue. That’s the only concern for an attack that finished third in the nation in passing and cranked out over 38 points per game.
Wazzu caught two major breaks, getting QB Luke Falk back for his final year along with OG Cody O’Connell. It’ll be hard for Falk to get too much love in a conference with Sam Darnold, Jake Browning and Josh Rosen, but he’ll lead the league in passing.
O’Connell leads an line that loses two parts of the interior, but is strong on the outside and has size returning to blast away when needed.
Of course the soup is made with the passing game, but the ground attack should be stellar, too, with the top five running backs from last season returning, led by the three-headed monster of James Williams, Jamal Morrow – the best receiver of the bunch – and Gerard Wicks, who’ll all average well over five yards per pop again.
And about that receiving corps? Yeah, Gabs Marks and River Cracraft are gone, but everyone else returns for Falk to work with. A 5,000-yard passing season isn’t off the table after coming up with over 4,700 last year, however, it might not happen because it’ll be too tempting to …
Biggest Key To The Washington State Offense
Run the ball, and run it again. The Cougars cranked out a 289-yard rushing game against poor old Idaho State to start out the 2011 season – but that was against an FCS team. Before that, they ran for 221 yards to beat Oregon State late in 2010. Up until last season, those were their only 200-yard rushing games.
In 2016, Wazzu ripped up Idaho, Oregon, and Cal for well over 200 rushing yards and won all three games. This year, with the backs the offense has returning, there’s no reason to ignore a little bit of offensive balance. A little.
The Cougars don’t have to run for 200 yards a game, but they need to at least be effective.
What You Need To Know About The Washington State Defense
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch put together a great season for a D that gave up a not-that-bad-for-the-Pac-12 406 yards and 26 points per game. With nine starters back, there’s reason to hope for even more.
Safety Shalom Luani is done, but nine of the top ten tacklers return including all the key linebackers and All-Pac-12 pass rusher Hercules Mata’afa. However, the Cougars have to generate more of a pass rush and need to be more disruptive.
But it’s all relative. While the lack of pressure hurt the secondary that gave up way too many yards, the Cougar D was a takeaway machine with 23 on the year, doing a great job especially early on.
There’s depth, decent-enough size up front, and aggressive playmakers across the back seven. Can this be the best defense yet under Mike Leach? It might not be far off.
Biggest Key To The Washington State Defense
The pass rush has to be steadier. It’s hard to argue too much with a defense that was so terrific against the run, but the pressure on the quarterback was way too spotty. After coming up with 31 sacks in 2015 – going sackless in just two games – there were way too many power outages last season with the 19 sacks coming here and there.
Five came against Arizona, three against Stanford, and with four games without a sack and 16 of the 19 coming in six outings. For a secondary that finished 112th in the nation in passing yards, it could use all the help it can get.
Washington State Will Be Far Better If …
The penalties slow down. Flags were a problem in 2014, but the glitch was apparently fixed in a much tighter 2015 season. That went out the window last year as the team was hit by 33 more flags for close to 500 more yards.
The team was better later in the season, but penalties were a massive problem early on in the losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State – getting hit 22 times for 180 yards in the two games.
Best Washington State Offensive Player
QB Luke Falk, Sr. – There are plenty of NFL scouting types who’ll disagree with this – The League is waiting to get All-American Cody O’Connell for the interior of someone’s line as soon as possible. However, Falk is the star of this show – and a great pro prospect, too – coming off a massive season completing 69% of his passes for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns with eight picks, while also running for three scores.
The 6-4, 225-pounder is filling out his frame, and he could stand to get a little bigger considering the huge shots he takes. He doesn’t have a problem getting the ball out of his hands in a hurry, but he’ll fight through bumps and bruises and keep on slinging.
Like all Mike Leach quarterbacks, there’s a question about whether or not he’s a system guy and if his skills will translate to the next level, but they should. Plenty of NFL teams would love to give him his shot.
2. OG Cody O’Connell, Sr.
3. OT Cole Madison, Sr.
4. RB Jamal Morrow, Sr.
5. WR Tavares Martin, Jr.
Best Washington State Defensive Player
DE Hercules Mata’afa, Jr. – The Cougars didn’t generate enough of a pass rush after getting to the quarterback early and often in 2015, but for the second straight season, Mata’afa did his part.
The 6-2, 252-pound all-star cranked out 12 sacks over the last two seasons with a great motor and the type of playmaking ability to take over a game. He came up with 47 tackles with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season, and now on a line that gets everyone back, look out.
2. LB Isaac Dotson, Sr.
3. S Robert Taylor, Sr.
4. S Jalen Thompson, Soph.
5. DE Nnamdi Oguayo, Soph.
Key Player To A Successful Season
WR Tavares Martin, Jr. – The good receivers are going to produce no matter what in this offense, and Luke Falk will make everyone better, but the parts still have to make it all go. Game Marks was the No. 1 target, and River Cracraft was the reliable veteran who could stretch the field.
Martin was second on the team with 64 catches for 728 yards and seven scores, and now he should be the main man for a terrific-looking corps that needs someone to rise up and be the guy.
The Washington State Season Will Be A Success If …
It’s a nine-win campaign. On the plus side, there are six games against teams that didn’t go to a bowl game last season. On the negative side, some of those teams – Oregon, Cal, Arizona – are going to be great. On the plus side, the first five games are at home. On the negative, five of the last seven aren’t. After winning eight games last season and nine the year before, it would be a great run is the Cougars get to eight regular season wins and cranks out a bowl victory.
Key Game To The Washington State Season
Oct. 7 at Oregon – The 51-33 win in Wazzu’s Pac-12 opener over Oregon was one of the key points in the season for both teams. It showed that the Cougars were going to be a major factor, and it was the beginning of the end for the Ducks.
This year, it’s the first road game of the season for Washington State, and it’s going off the USC showdown. Lose to the Trojans, and the trip to Eugene becomes a massive deal with four more road games – including the regular season-ender at Washington – to go.
2016 Washington State Fun Stats
– Time of Possession: Washington State 32:26 – Opponents 27:34
– Field Goals: Opponents 10-of-17 – Washington State 9-of-15
– Second Half Scoring: Washington State 266 – Opponents 178