Last Season: 6-7 (4-5) Pac-12
Last year, second-year head coach Mike Leach lead Washington State football to their first bowl appearance since the 2003 Holiday Bowl. The New Mexico Bowl didn’t exactly go as they hoped — a 48-45 loss featuring a fifteen-point comeback by Colorado State in the final two and a half minutes — but the fact that they were there is encouraging nonetheless.
Players started to buy into Leach’s “air-raid” offense and the defense outplayed expectations and forced 30 turnovers last year — second-most in the Pac-12.
The Cougars showed obvious improvement from the first time they touched the ball last season: a four-minute drive at Auburn punctuated by a (rare) rushing touchdown. They lost that game by seven, which was a good effort in retrospect, considering the Tigers went on to play in the BCS National Championship game.
First team All-Conference and All-American safety Deone Bucannon was the impact player at WSU for four years, literally and figuratively. Last year, he led the team in tackles (114), solo tackles (78), interceptions (6), forced fumbles (3), and hits heard in the last row of Martin Stadium (unofficial). He was the first Associated Press All-American for WSU since Jerome Harrison in 2005, and no Pac-12 player had more career-tackles Bucannon’s 284 over that time. The Palouse Punisher went 27th overall in the NFL draft to the Arizona Cardinals. He was one of three starters the Cougs lost in the defensive secondary along with corners Damante Horton and Nolan Washington.
Also worth mentioning is the graduation of fan-favorite kicker Andrew Furney. He was one of the few bright-spots for the Cougars during the Paul Wulff dark-age, and provided some rare positive publicity for Wazzu when he hit a 60-yard field goal against Eastern Washington in 2012, the farthest in college football that year.
Keys this Season
Experience – Fifteen Coug starters will return to the team for the 2014 season – eight on offense, seven on defense. Senior QB Connor Halliday headlines the list of veterans, which also features all eight of his top pass-catchers — including honorable mention All-Pac-12 wide receiver River Cracraft.
Their defensive front-seven will look remarkably similar to the bunch that featured D-lineman Xavier Cooper and LB Darryl Monroe last season, but junior free safety Taylor Taliulu will the only returning starter in the defensive backfield. He’ll joined by sophomore strong safety Isaac Dotson, sophomore corner Daquawn Brown, and freshman corner Charleston White. David Bucannon (brother of Deone) will also get some playing time at the strong safety spot as a sophomore. The secondary will have to figure it out quickly considering the pace the Cougs want push on offense — passing on offense means defending the pass on defense.
With so many veterans returning, 2014 will be an important season for the future of both the program and Mike Leach as the coach. His system is unique, but after three years the players understand it, are comfortable with it, and should be able to implement it. Offensively, it will be a disappointment if the Cougars don’t lead the country in passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass attempts, and plays from scrimmage, since their strategy when they have the ball is to score quickly, early, and often.
With their frenetic offensive pace, success will depend on how well the defense can get off the field. They don’t have to be one of the top defenses in the country for this strategy to succeed — they don’t even need to be a top-50 defense if the air-raid takes flight like Leach envisions — but they do have to make some stops here and there. The will rely on speed, conditioning, and getting stops when their opponent tries to slow the game down. With so many returners in the front seven, they should be pretty adept at that.
The Cougars’ pass-heavy offense is incredibly exciting; it’s not often you see a team challenge the fundamental run-first paradigm of football with any kind of success. When Leach brought this “score like a basketball team” mentality to Wazzu, he re-invigorated the fan base, but as the team improves the lack of a run-game will become a problem. The biggest issue with the air-raid is that it makes it really hard to maintain a lead. We saw it happen in the New Mexico Bowl. WSU had a fifteen-point lead but let it evaporate in the final three minutes because they couldn’t hold the ball. It’s dangerous. Pirates live for danger though, so as long as Leach has them making bowl games, WSU fans can live with it.