No. 18 Washington State
Washington State has won 17 games the last two seasons, their highest two-year total since 2002-03.
Head coach Mike Leach and Heisman-contending quarterback Luke Falk get the headlines but the Cougars also boast terrific linemen on both sides, a deep group of running backs and a rising sophomore in the secondary.
2016 Record: 8-5 (7-2, Pac-12)
After winning seven total conference games in Mike Leach's first three seasons combined, Washington State won seven in 2016 alone — and has 13 Pac-12 victories the last two years.
They lost their first two games by a combined six points — including their season opener at home to Eastern Washington — before winning eight of their final 10 games. Wins in their first seven conference games put them in contention for a division title but they dropped the final two regular-season games against Colorado and Washington.
Head Coach: Mike Leach (6th year, 29-34 overall)
With a 17-9 record the last two years, Mike Leach is nearly out of the sub-.500 hole he dug with a 12-25 mark in his first three seasons. He has brought stability to the program for the first time in 15 years and is suddenly the longest-tenured head coach in the Pac-12.
This is the part where I usually include a relevant quote about Leach aiming for a conference championship or 10-win seasons. Instead, let's talk about rollerblading.
“I usually rollerblade for exercise because it’s more fun than jogging," Leach said at Pac-12 Media Day. "I like the way it works your abs. It works your abs in a better fashion than running,” Leach said. “I would go out and try to roller blade six miles around the neighborhood.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Luke Falk, RB Jamal Morrow, RB Gerard Wicks, WR Robert Lewis, WR Tavares Martin Jr., OT Andre Dillard, OT Cole Madison, G Cody O'Connell
Five of the top six returning highest-graded players in the Pac-12 are Cougars, four of whom are offensive players. Luke Falk — whose 87.2 grade is tied with USC's Sam Darnold — spurned the NFL Draft for a final hurrah in Pullman.
The redshirt senior quarterback is averaging 343.2 passing yards per game in his career and has two seasons with at least 4,440 yards. He can make every throw on the field, has no issue checking down and rarely takes unnecessary risks (one interception per 40 attempts).
"We were hoping he’d turn pro, obviously, but he probably made a good decision to come back," said an anonymous Pac-12 coach.
Falk's longtime No. 1 receiver Gabe Marks is finally gone but he does get back Robert Lewis and Tavares Martin, who combined for 97 receptions, 1,122 yards and 10 scores in 2016. Both say they're benefiting from Mike Leach swapping receivers coaches, moving Dave Nichol from outside to inside and Derek Sage from inside to outside.
"One thing I learned from coach Sage is he’s real big about fundamentals. Eyes to the tuck, catch the ball, just look the ball in, routes,” Lewis said. “One thing about coach Nichol, is he’s (about) no wasted movements. That’s the biggest thing. He doesn’t want you coming off the ball slow. Attack the guy, make him get on his hip and then run your route.”
Two seniors are back at running back in Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — both of whom are capable receivers — and the offensive line is led by two all-conference honorable mention selections in Cole Madison and Cody O'Connell.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Hercules Mata'afa, LB Peyton Pelluer, LB Frankie Luvu, CB Darrien Molton, S Robert Taylor, S Jalen Thompson
While defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has built a unit that forces a ton of turnovers (47 the last two years), they still can't consistently pressure the quarterback. They ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 102nd in the FBS with 20 sacks last season.
"We’ve got a lot of depth and we have to make sure we stay healthy,” defensive line coach Phelps said of his players at the start of fall camp. “But they’re flying around and they’re looking good.”
Atop the depth chart is Hercules Mata'afa, a do-it-all junior defensive end who was their lone reliable front-seven penetrator. He led the team with a combined 18.5 tackles for loss and sacks (no other player had more than 10.5).
Behind him are two senior linebackers in Peyton Pelluer and Frankie Luvu. Pelluer is a two-year starter with 233 career tackles and 24 tackles for loss, while Luvu is moving to a "rush" hybrid position that will put him primarily on the line of scrimmage.
The secondary features two upperclassmen in corner Darrien Molton and safety Robert Taylor, along with sophomore safety Jalen Thompson. Thompson got off to a rough start in their loss to Eastern Washington but still started all 13 games and played well.
“He’s naturally a really optimistic guy – you never see him get down,” Leach said last weekend. “He plays extremely hard, and he’s been a pretty good example to guys older than him as far as playing hard
Notable Player Losses
RB James Williams, WR Gabe Marks, WR River Cracraft, C Riley Sorenson, S Shalom Luani
Center Riley Sorenson graduated after an outstanding career. His story is both remarkable and heartbreaking; he lost both of his parents and defeated testicular cancer. The cancer, however, returned this summer.
The Cougars lost one of the most productive receivers in Pac-12 history in all-conference first-teamer Gabe Marks. He had 3,453 career yards and 37 touchdowns on a conference-record 316 receptions. Third-leading receiver River Cracraft (53 receptions, 701 yards) is also gone, as is all-purpose back James Williams, who had 102 carries and 48 catches.
Safety Shalom Luani was terrific in two seasons after transferring from the City College of San Francisco. A two-time all-conference pick, Luani had 157 tackles and eight picks. A seventh-round pick of the Raiders, he was the Cougars' lone draft selection.
Notable Player Additions
G Robert Valencia, LB Jahad Woods
Zero freshmen (true or redshirt) or JUCO transfers are currently projected to start. However, a few new faces could have sizeable reserve roles.
Robert Valencia is a JUCO transfer from the City College of San Francisco and current backup to senior B.J. Salmonson at right guard. He was involved in a fall camp skirmish — that Leach didn't approve of but said to "get about their business pretty quick" — with defensive end Hercules Mata'afa.
Defensively, Jahad Woods is a redshirt freshman with good speed and cover ability. He could wind up starting at either middle or weak-side linebacker in 2018.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Montana State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Boise State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Oregon State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Nevada|
|Friday, Sept. 29||vs. USC|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Oregon|
|Friday, Oct. 13||at Cal|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Colorado|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Arizona|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Stanford|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Utah|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Washington|