With its win against USC, Washington State has moved into the Playoff conversation, and the Cougars just might get invited.
Washington State beat vaunted USC last Friday to improve to a 5-0 record, the first time the Cougars have started the year 5-0 since 2001. Before head coach Mike Leach came to Pullman in 2012, the Cougars languished in college football’s basement for roughly a decade. They had not reached a bowl game since 2003, and they averaged less than four wins per season during that span.
Now, over the course of just a few seasons, Leach has brought Washington State from a west-coast laughing stock to a potential College Football Playoff sleeper.
Since quarterback Luke Falk took over as the full-time starter in 2015, Leach’s air-raid offense has excelled in Pullman. In 2015, Washington State finished top-50 in scoring offense with 31.5 points per game and first in passing yards with 389.2 yards per game. In 2016, the Cougars dipped slightly in passing yardage (362.5, still third nationally), but became more efficient, improving to 38.2 points per game (18th).
That devastating passing attack is, somehow, stronger this season than it’s ever been.
The Cougars are averaging 41.0 points per game through five games while averaging 414.0 passing yards per game as a team. Falk is also having his best statistical season to date, completing an astonishing 74.5 percent of his passes – he completed “only” 69.4 and 70.0 percent of his passes the past two seasons, respectively – for 16 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Those marks put him on pace for 41.6 touchdowns and 5.2 interceptions through 13 games, both of which would be career bests.
Still, even if this year’s passing game is firing on a new level, Washington State had strong passing games in 2015 and 2016. What makes this Cougars team a Playoff sleeper rather than the solid, bowl-eligible team it has been?
First of all, Falk has another year of experience under his belt, and it’s showing.
College football is full of uber-talented players with little experience who can get by on pure athleticism. That usually works well at the skill positions: running back, wide receiver, cornerback, etc. But at the quarterback position, experience and guile are often more important than pure athletic ability.
Pundits laud the likes of Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, both third-year players, because of their natural ability and potential at the professional level. And, to be fair, both are obviously talented quarterbacks.
There is something to be said, though, about a former walk-on, fifth-year senior playing quarterback with as much experience as anyone in the country. Falk is a quarterback who, arguably, is more talented a pure passer than anyone else in the country, and, inarguably, has statistics that place him among the nation’s elite.
Outside of the numbers, though, he seems to make the exact right decisions at the exact right moment far more often than not. That kind of leadership and know-how on offense gives the Cougars a little leg up on other potential Playoff teams with younger, less experienced signal callers.
Then there is the continuing trend toward employing an effective running game.
In Leach’s early years in Pullman, the Cougars didn’t run the ball often or well. From 2012 to 2015, Washington State ran the ball more than 200 times just once, in 2015, when it ran the ball 201 times. However, last season, with an effective three-man backfield, the Cougars ran the ball 290 times for an average of 5.8 yards per carry.
This year, Washington State mostly uses two backs: senior Jamal Morrow and sophomore James Williams. The Cougars currently average 5.4 yards per carry and are on pace for 260 rushes for the season.
Leach likes to use short passes as a sort of mock-running game, and Falk executes that plan flawlessly. However, in order for the air raid offense to be at peak effectiveness, at least the semblance of an actual running game must be present. Otherwise, teams will empty the box in order to play extra defensive backs in place of linebackers. That crowds passing lanes and makes it extremely difficult to throw the ball downfield consistently.
Washington State has two running backs that force opposing defenses to remain honest and stay in their base set (either 4-3 or 3-4 depending on the team) instead of moving into nickel and dime sets. That will be critical as the season continues, particularly against Stanford and Washington, who possess top-notch defenses.
Most importantly, though, Washington State’s vastly improved defense is what makes it a legitimate Playoff threat.
Mike Leach’s teams have never been famous for their strong defenses. Just a year ago, the Cougars allowed 27.2 points and 417.0 yards per game (56th and 69th in the nation respectively). They had a particularly porous pass defense, allowing the eighth most passing yards per game of any team in the country.
This season is a completely different story. Led by sophomore Jalen Thompson and senior Robert Taylor, the secondary has been as strong a unit as any. Washington State has allowed the seventh fewest passing yards per game in the nation and the 11th fewest total yards per game. The Cougars also allow only 20.2 points per game, a full seven-point improvement from last season.
Redshirt junior defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, owner of perhaps the greatest name in college football, has been a monster in the trenches, already recording 4.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles for a loss. Along with fellow end Nnamdi Oguayo, he feasted on USC’s shaky offensive line, disrupting runs and passes at equal measure.
The Cougars 17.0 team sacks rank seventh, their 12 turnovers forced rank sixth, and they rank 13th in passing efficiency against. This defense has gone from swiss cheese to juggernaut during the course of one offseason. Couple that with an offense that can score at will and you have the makings of a title contender.
Of course, there are still some issues that Washington State will have to contend with the rest of the year.
The offensive line has allowed 19 sacks so far this season. This number is inflated a bit due to the huge number of passes that Washington State attempts, but the Cougars line is allowing 2.3 percent more sacks per dropback than it was last season. That’s slightly troublesome considering both Stanford and Washington and their stalwart defensive lines are still on the schedule.
Speaking of schedules, Washington State has yet to play a game outside of Pullman, Washington this season. That changes this weekend when the Cougars head to Eugene to take on Oregon. Of their seven remaining regular season games, five are on the road, including games at No. 20 Utah and No. 6 Washington. Road games are always more difficult than home games, making the road to the Playoff that much more difficult.
Washington State has some tough games the rest of the way. But with how potent Falk and the Cougar offense are, combined with the shockingly stifling and ball-hawking defense, don’t be surprised to see Washington State emerge from the wreckage of the regular season as a Playoff participant. The Cougars have the skill set and the talent to pull it off.
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