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WSU unit grades for the first quarter of 2015

Washington State has wrapped up its nonconference schedule and won't play this weekend, so this seems like a good time to assess the Cougars.

Quarterbacks: Backup quarterback Peyton Bender has played one drive, completing 1 of 4 passes with an interception. That drive was a game-decider, which is a tough situation for someone to enter his first college game. So, I'm giving Bender a pass and making this section all about starter Luke Falk.

Falk has done some great things this season and has shown the nerve that you like and hate to see in your starting quarterback. His willingness to put his body on the line at the end of games speaks well of his leadership but poorly of his ability to keep himself healthy.

That's sort of been the story of Falk's season so far, lots of good mixed in with lots of bad. On the one hand, he's only been sacked five times in three games, a great figure considering how often he drops back to pass. But, most if not all of those sacks seem to be on Falk, who appears to lock up in the pocket, not getting rid of the ball despite open receivers in front of him and giving the defense time to get around the offensive line.

Falk was almost perfect during WSU's game-winning drive at Rutgers and he's thrown some beautiful passes downfield this season. But the WSU offense almost never feels like it's in a rhythm and is averaging just 28.3 points per game. That's about three points lower than last season's average, and the Cougars haven't played any Pac-12 teams yet.

Falk has been OK. For the quarterback in WSU's offense, OK isn't good enough. Grade: C 

Running backs: This year the WSU runs have come in bunches. The first drives against Portland State and Wyoming were almost all run plays, and while the Cougars didn't run much in the third quarter against Rutgers, they gashed the Scarlet Knights plenty in the fourth. The sporadic nature of WSU's rushing attack seems to have left an impression the Cougars are running the ball more this year. Not really.

The WSU running backs are on a pace to rush for 1,008 yards on 184 carries, which would be less than one carry per game more than last season. What the running backs are doing is running a lot more efficiently. Last year, Theron West had the highest yards-per-carry average at 4.2. This year, as a group the unit is averaging 5.5 yards per rush. The backs have also added 184 yards in the receiving game. Gerard Wicks has been a bull up the middle and Keith Harrington has emerged as a threat to create an explosive play on every touch. From what I can tell, they've been pretty good in pass protection, too.

It will be critical for the running backs to maintain their effectiveness against Pac-12 defenses. If they can, this is a unit that deserves more touches. Grade: A-

Wide receivers:
This group has the disadvantage of being held to some very high expectations due to the number of playmaking opportunities it gets over the course of a quarter-season. You can point to all of the starters and remember huge plays they've made this season.

In fact, let's do that: River Cracraft's final drive at Rutgers, the one-handed touchdown catch Dom Williams made against Wyoming, the ridiculous touchdown catch made by Gabe Marks under duress against Rutgers, crucial third and fourth down conversions by Robert Lewis.

But those plays should be routine for this group, not exceptional, and so far only Marks is consistently playing up to his potential in games. Cracraft seemed a little off until that Rutgers drive, and Mike Leach said that he wasn't as focused during the preseason as he usually is. Williams has been the team's playmaker, but he still disappears for stretches during games. It seems like Lewis should be getting some more targets and Kyrin Priester has to find a way to make a bigger impact. Grade: B-

Offensive line:
Those low sack totals and good rushing numbers we were just talking about? A lot of credit goes to the five guys up front. The coaches have expressed that they still expect more from this group, which just speaks to how high expectations were for the offensive line with all five starters from last year returning.

To my eye, this group has done a great job in pass protection and is doing OK when it's time to run block. The unit does a good job of getting extra blocks at the second level and beyond on screen plays, but could still do a better job dirtying up the linebackers on run plays. There are a few too many penalties still, particularly for a veteran group, and shoring those up would be a good goal for the bye week. Grade: B+

Defensive line: The plan here was for increased depth to make up for the lack of some established starters. While WSU's defensive ends have done an OK job of replacing Xavier Cooper, the Cougars really seem to miss Toni Pole inside. To create pressure we've seen the Cougars try a lot inside, including moving Hercules Mata'afa to the interior. But WSU needs to find a way to clog the middle or it will continue to struggle to defend the run. Grade: C+

Linebackers:
This unit has steadily improved over the first three games, which makes them a little tough to grade. The linebackers were frequently in the wrong place against Portland State, which contributed to an unaffordable loss. They cleaned it up a bit against Rutgers and against Wyoming, they were the catalyst in the win, with Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio combining for five sacks and inside 'backer Peyton Pelluer making 3 1/2 tackles for loss, and ending a few drives with stops on third-and-short. If the unit keeps playing like it did last Saturday, the midseason grade will be a lot higher. Grade: C

Defensive backs: This is undoubtedly a better group that last year's secondary crop, and barely any older. While Darrien Molton experienced some true freshman growing pains against Wyoming, he still appears to be the one cornerback the coaches can't take off the field. This unit could still be doing a better job of getting hands on footballs, but at least it isn't giving up as many explosive plays downfield as last year's group.

That said, it's also only played one team that could really test it downfield, Rutgers and star receiver Leonte Carroo. For the most part, the secondary played fine in that game. If the Cougars can hold the Golden Bears to just a few long passes next week, then this could turn into a pretty good secondary in short order. Grade: B-

Special teams: Erik Powell is a three-point threat from 55 yards or more, Tavares Martin Jr. seems poised to break a big return, and freshman punter Zach Charme consistently pinned the Cowboys last week. But all that is of little solace if the Cougars are going to still give up big returns to good return men. Rutgers tagged the Cougars coverage teams for two scores, and the Pac-12 will send many more good return men at WSU. Some questionable decision-making by punt returner Kyrin Priester also doesn't help the grade, although he has been replaced in that role by Marks. Grade: D+



Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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