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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Offensive line the key to WSU’s recent success

Cole Madison and the WSU offensive line gave quarterback Luke Falk plenty of time to throw against Oregon. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – A perusal of the box score in either of Washington State’s two most recent games – both 50-pointers – yields an undeniable truth, but plenty of deception.

That the WSU offense is humming right now is both obvious and true. But what is not explicitly shown is that the offense’s new potency is primarily thanks to the five guys up front whose names never appear in the stat sheet.

The WSU offensive line is the best it has ever been, certainly in the Mike Leach era, but perhaps dating much further back. They will have a chance to prove it this week against a Stanford team that may be reeling after its blowout loss to Washington, but is still big and tough, and now angry to boot.

Mike Price had some pretty good units toward the end of his time in Pullman, and it is fair to assume the undefeated 1915 team was pretty stout at the point of attack.

But it is unlikely any of those lines could have routinely given their quarterbacks five or more seconds to pass against the Pac-12’s most blitz-happy team, as the Cougars routinely did on Saturday against Oregon.

For the first time in his career, Falk got to work around big, open, expansive pockets. The kind of pockets you can step up into, change the angle of a pass and fire darts all over the field. That’s what he did, completing 75 percent of his passes keeping a relatively clean jersey.

And the WSU groups that could pass block well probably could not pave the way for 508 rushing yards over two games, like this group has. Against Oregon on Saturday three WSU running backs rushed for 7.8 yards per carry, and were only tackled behind the line of scrimmage three times in 35 attempts.

Falk frequently jokes that he should buy the offensive line a steak dinner. After the UO game, he suggested perhaps the running backs should pick up the tab.

Afterward, Leach said “The offensive line did a really good job. They are quality backs, but we are bigger than we have been, and now they are starting to play a little better together than they were early on.”

That counts as effusive praise from a coach who complained during his 2012 debut season at WSU that his offensive line could not handle Utah’s two-man rush, and that his five linemen would get whipped in an alley fight by two of the Utes defensive linemen.

And where this unit has been is what makes part of its dominance so amazing. In Leach’s first year, the Cougars barely had enough offensive linemen to field a team, and they barely weighed enough to be called offensive linemen. This line really is not that far removed from those days.

Center Riley Sorenson saw his first snaps in 2013, just one year after the Utah debacle. Right tackle Cole Madison has been starting since 2014, a year in which the Cougars went 3-9 and saw starting quarterback Connor Halliday’s season end on one of the 36 sacks the team surrendered that year.

Last year the offensive line was good, but it also had a lynchpin player in left tackle Joe Dahl, who now suits up for the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The Cougars also lost his left-side battery mate, guard Gunnar Eklund.

Yet the pair of Andre Dillard and Cody O’Connell have been an undeniable upgrade, so far. Dillard has the athleticism to handle premier rushers, and O’Connell is knocking around defenders in the run game.

Madison, Sorenson and Eduardo Middleton have been starting games for a long time, but are showing that last year’s solid performance was a plateau, not a ceiling.

Falk will put up gaudy numbers as long as he plays. So will receiver Gabe Marks and the running backs, and fans will be drawn to them because of Marks’ inner burn and because the combined personality of Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Jamal Morrow is even more engaging than its individual quirky parts.

The star of this WSU offense, though, is the offensive line. And however far the Cougars get in 2016, it will be because of the underappreciated big men clearing a path.