WITH FIRST FIVE GAMES AT HOME, A FAST START IS CRUCIAL FOR THE COUGARS
It’s hard to tell whether Washington State’s early spate of home games is more a blessing or a great big curse.
No other FBS schedule out there is more frontloaded than that of the 24th-ranked Cougars, with five consecutive home games to start the year – all of them stuffed into the month of September.
WSU will be billed as the superior team in at least four of the first five, so the Cougars have an opportunity to dart up the national rankings before the marquee game against USC on Sept. 29. The back end of the slate isn’t so friendly, though, with five of the final seven on the road, including games at Utah and Washington to close out the season.
Of course, the Cougars won’t dare to look that far into the future. Sixth-year coach Mike Leach has yet to win the first game of the season at WSU and the Cougars will aim to end a ghastly two-game losing streak to the Big Sky Conference Saturday against Montana State.
The top two receivers in school history are no longer around and yet it’s still overwhelming how much talent the Cougars return on offense.
There’s quarterback Luke Falk, a dark horse to win the Heisman Trophy who will become the school leader in all-time passing yards by the second week of the season, if not the first. But the senior, modest by nature, will say he’s only concerned about guiding the Cougars to a winning record for the third straight season. If he does that, he’ll also be the only QB in school history to start in three bowl games.
Then there’s the running backs. Wait, running backs? In Pullman? Not only do the Cougars have them, but the quartet of Jamal Morrow, James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington were more productive from the line of scrimmage than any other group in the Pac-12 last season. Morrow is a steady, savvy senior and Williams, a sophomore, has the raw talent that could make him one of the league’s top rushers before his career’s over.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to all that firepower in the backfield, WSU brings back one of the country’s top-rated offensive lines. At left guard, Cody O’Connell a 6-9, 370-pound behemoth, is coming off a season that saw him earn consensus All-America honors. Pro Football Focus considers Cole Madison (right tackle) the country’s top-rated offensive tackle in terms of pass blocking efficiency and the Cougars’ other tackle, Andre Dillard, checked in just one spot behind his teammate, at No. 2, when PFF graded the nation’s best blockers.
If there is a deficiency within this offense, it’s at inside receiver. The Cougars weren’t nearly as efficient after slot River Cracraft went down with an injury last season and with Robert Lewis’ health in limbo, versatile Kyle Sweet and a host of youngsters will have to pick up the slack early.
WSU lost defensive line coach Joe Salave’a to Oregon this offseason, so, needing a replacement, and needing exponential growth in their pass-rush, the Cougars brought in Jeff Phelps just a few weeks after Phelps’ Minnesota D-line roughed up Falk and company in the Holiday Bowl.
Phelps is trying to revamp a defensive front that sacked the quarterback just 20 times last season – second to last in the Pac-12 behind Oregon State and Cal, neither of whom played in a bowl game. But former freshman All-American tackle Hercules Mata’afa is primed for his best season yet and Nnamdi Oguayo should compliment him well on the edge with great speed and length. Nose tackle Daniel Ekuale is a faster, stronger version of his 2016 self, but let’s see if he can hold up against those gargantuan offensive fronts at USC and Stanford.
The Cougars look sturdy elsewhere. All-Pac-12 middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer returns and will be flanked by roommate/weakside backer Isaac Dotson. The back end will look identical to last year: Marcellus Pippins/Darrien Molton at corner and Jalen Thompson/Robert Taylor at safety.
Shalom Luani, the hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety/linebacker now playing for the Oakland Raiders leaves a substantial hole, but the Cougars should still be able to take another step forward in year No. 3 under Alex Grinch.
Senior kicker Erik Powell has been a mixed bag for the Cougars in his four years on the Pullman campus. Case in point: Powell missed his first five tries as a junior before drilling nine of his last 10. If there’s anything to be gleaned from fall camp, the Cougar kicker has been consistent. Fans just hope that translates – and it might need to.
Powell and Sweet will split the punting duties and the Cougars once again have a bevy of capable of punt/kick returners, including Taylor, Morrow, Travell Harris, Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin.
Cougars at a glance
2016 record: 8-5 overall, 7-2 Pac-12
HEAD COACH/OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Mike Leach (sixth year, 29-34 overall)
Alex Grinch (third year)
Last five seasons
Tickets: wsucougars.com or (800)-GO-COUGS
20 sacks: Statistically speaking, WSU’s pass-rush was the third worst in the Pac-12 and the Cougars played one fewer game than Cal and Oregon State (18 sacks each).
2,299 yards: Entering last year’s game at Colorado on Nov. 19, WSU’s RBs led the conference in yards from scrimmage
4,713 yards: No surprise here, but the Cougars once again led the conference in passing yards per game, and ranked fifth nationally in that category.
Sept. 2 vs. Montana State, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 vs. Boise State, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Oregon State, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. Nevada, TBD
Sept. 29 vs. USC, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 at Oregon, TBD
Oct. 13 at California, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 vs. Colorado, TBD
Oct. 28 at Arizona, TBD
Nov. 4 vs. Stanford, TBD
Nov. 11 at Utah, TBD
Nov. 25 at Washington, TBD
Projected starters for WSU
QB: Luke Falk, 6-4, 223, Sr.
RB: James Williams, 5-11, 195, So. or Jamal Morrow, 5-9, 203, Sr.
LT: Andre Dillard, 6-5, 3-6, Jr.
LG: Cody O’Connell, 6-9, 368, Sr.
C: Frederick Mauigoa, 6-3, 315, So.
RG: B.J. Salmonson, 6-4, 310, Sr.
RT: Cole Madison, 6-5, 314, Sr.
XR: Tavares Martin Jr., 6-1, 183, Jr.
YR: Kyle Sweet, 6-0, 193, Jr.
HR: Travell Harris, 5-9, 177, Fr.
ZR: Isaiah Johnson-Mack, 6-3, 216, So.
DE: Nnamdi Oguayo, 6-3, 237, So.
NG: Daniel Ekuale, 6-3, 3-5, Sr.
DT: Hercules Mata’afa, 6-2, 252, Jr.
RLB: Frankie Luvu, 6-3, 235, Sr.
WLB: Isaac Dotson, 6-1, 232, Sr.
MLB: Peyton Pelluer, 6-0, 225, Sr.
NB: Hunter Dale, 5-10, 190, Jr.
CB: Darrien Molton, 5-10, 185, Jr.
CB: Marcellus Pippins, 5-10, 178, Sr.
SS: Jalen Thompson, 6-0, 191, So.
FS: Robert Taylor, 5-10, 186, Sr.
K: Erik Powell, 6-1, 202, Sr.
P: Kyle Sweet, 6-0, 193, Jr.
LS: Kyle Celli, 6-1, 240, Jr.
KR: Robert Taylor, 5-10, 186, Sr.
PR: Robert Taylor, 5-10, 186, Sr.
1. Washington Huskies
2. Washington State Cougars
3. Stanford Cardinal
4. Oregon Ducks
5. Oregon State Beavers
6. California Golden Bears
1. USC Trojans
2. Utah Utes
3. Colorado Buffaloes
4. UCLA Bruins
5. Arizona State Sun Devils
6. Arizona Wildcats
Pac-12 Championship: UW over USC
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