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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: Revisiting fan predictions from the 2019 football season

UPDATED: Sat., April 4, 2020

On Aug. 28, we asked you all to be fortune-tellers and make predictions as to how Washington State’s football team would fare in 2019. While some made guesses as to where the Cougars would finish in the Pac-12, others hypothesized how individual players would perform and, gulp, whether the program would hold onto longtime coach Mike Leach for another season.

While we wait for the 2020 season to start – that is, wait to hear if it will start – we figured now was as good a time as any to revisit the predictions made in August. No prizes for those of you who were right, just scathing reviews for those who were wrong.

I’m probably too late, but my assertion is we lose Leach at the end of this season. Not hoping for it, but I am preparing myself.

– Maria R.

It didn’t feel like a certainty at the time, but Leach’s flirtation with the SEC (see: Tennessee, 2017) and reported interest in a Big-12 job one year later (see: Texas Tech, 2018) led us to wonder if the coach would eventually leave the Cougars for an opportunity outside of the Pac-12.

The Cougars nearly made it through December and January – the two-month cycle when the coaching carousel normally spins – without losing Leach. The fanbase was injected with optimism on Dec. 5, a few weeks before the Cheez-It Bowl, when the school put out a press release with the headline, “Coach Leach extended through 2024 season.” The annual extension was nothing more than a provision in Leach’s contract and by no means a signal of the coach’s commitment, but the timing of the announcement felt somewhat significant, especially after Leach was linked to openings at Ole Miss and Arkansas, and to a lesser extent, Florida State and Missouri.

Once those positions were filled, it was promising the Cougars would retain Leach for a ninth season. Mississippi State’s job didn’t open until the new year, but once it did, Leach was almost immediately considered a top candidate. Once he met with Bulldogs athletic director John Cohen at his home in Key West, Florida, the reality of the Cougars conducting their first coaching search in almost a decade began to set in.

But, hey, you said you were prepared, right?

The Cougs will be ranked in the top 10 the first week of November.

– Stuart O.


This presumably would’ve required the Cougars to finish no worse than 7-1 through their first eight games and would’ve required them to beat either Oregon or Utah, ranked Nos. 7 and 8, respectively, on Nov. 3 – the only two Pac-12 teams in the Top 25 at this point.

Of course, the Cougars faced a few harsher realities by the time Nov. 3 rolled around. Their defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys, left on his terms after the Cougars lost consecutive games to UCLA and Utah, giving up 101 points in the process. WSU managed to squeeze in a home win over Colorado, but the Cougars came up short in road games at Arizona State and Oregon, losing by four points in Tempe and three in Eugene.

The Cougars, who’d then lose at Cal before topping Stanford and Oregon State at home to secure bowl eligibility, may have re-entered the Top-25 picture had they beat Washington in the Apple Cup and Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl. Instead, they had two uninspiring performances, conceding 31 points in each game and scoring a combined 34.

7-5; Las Vegas Bowl. This is the year our lack of 4-star recruiting catches up with us; we can’t outscore UH and Utah, Stan & UO get revenge. Same UW as always. This is worst case but I’ll be lovin’ a 5th straight bowl, GO COUGS!

– Tom M.

“7-5; Las Vegas Bowl.”

Wrong and wrong, but not too far off on either. The Cougars finished the regular season 6-6, but three of the six losses were decided by four points or fewer (UCLA, ASU, Oregon). Had WSU avoided utter disaster against UCLA, limited ASU’s Brandon Aiyuk to two touchdowns rather than three, or produced a late defensive stop against Oregon, the Cougars would’ve emerged with a 7-5 record. Even with six wins, the Las Vegas Bowl was still in the picture, but Oregon dominated Utah in the Pac-12 championship game to ensure the conference would only send one team to a New Year’s Six Bowl, therefore pushing everyone else down a place in the pecking order.

“This is the year our lack of 4-star recriting catches up with us.”

Yes and no. The Cougars hit various milestones on offense and scored 30 points or more in 10 of 13 games. It’s difficult to scrutinize a unit that led the Pac-12 scoring at 37.8 ppg., but could your assertion apply to the defense? Certainly, a four-star edge rusher could’ve made the difference on a defensive line that wasn’t getting the same pressure it had in years past. An elite cornerback would’ve given somebody to challenge the conference’s top receivers – and may have made a difference in games when the Cougars conceded more than 150 receiving yards to a single player (UCLA and ASU).

“We can’t outscore UH and Utah, Stan and UO get revenge. Same UW as always.”

Wrong. Right. Wrong. Right. Most definitely right … Houston’s offense was potent with QB D’Eriq King, but WSU made some helpful adjustments on defense and the offense picked up steam to win 31-24 at NRG Stadium. Tyler Huntley and the Utes punished the Cougars with big plays in a 38-13 win that later prompted Leach to call his team “fat, dumb, happy and entitled.” WSU did manage to extend its winning streak against Stanford to four games, but a four-game run against Oregon finally ended in Eugene. As for the Apple Cup, you were dead on.

“This is worst case but I’ll be lovin’ a 5th straight bowl.”

Given how the season played out, a fifth consecutive bowl felt like the best-case scenario by the end. Too bad the game itself was so hard to watch.

The Washington State University will have Max Borghi win the Pac-12 player of the year award. Gordon and Easop Winston will connect for 14 TDs and Easop will go in the first round of the 2020 draft. If this is right, you have to give me a job working for WSU Football.

– Troy C.

Until the NFL draft is held, I suppose I can’t officially tell if you struck out on each of your three guesses. So for now, let’s go to the review booth.

Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year went to Utah running back Zack Moss, the only skill player in the conference to finish with more touchdowns than Borghi. The WSU running back still had a wildly productive season, of course, and was the only Pac-12 player with more than 500 yards rushing and receiving, in addition to being the only one with five rushing and receiving touchdowns. With a larger role in Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, Borghi, I anticipate, will be up for this award again in the fall.

Gordon and Winston weren’t too far off your estimate. The former City College of San Francisco teammates hooked up 85 times for 970 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Gordon went from little-known JC transfer to probable late-round NFL draft pick in the span of a season, but Winston, who didn’t have an opportunity to play in a college all-star game or participate in the NFL scouting combine, faces a steeper challenge. Nevertheless, if he isn’t drafted, he should still get the opportunity to make an NFL roster through free agency or a minicamp invite.

2019 WSU will have the most rushing attempts in a season by a Mike Leach-led offense.

– 509Griz

In the mailbag I published last August, I listed the total rushing attempts for each of Leach’s teams at WSU. A refresher: There were 281 in 2018, 303 in 2017, 362 in 2016, 294 in 2015, 243 in 2014, 243 in 2013 and 252 in 2012.

Not only did the Cougars fail to break the 2017 mark of 303 rushing attempts, they fell on the complete opposite end of the spectrum with just 210 – the fewest by a WSU team under Leach.

I’d point to a few variables to explain how and why that happened. In 2017, the Cougars felt comfortable handing off to three players: Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks. Morrow and Williams each logged more than 85 carries while Wicks, as the third-stringer, had 32 – twice as many as WSU’s No. 2 option, Deon McIntosh, had last season. Borghi may be one of the best running backs to come through Pullman, but the lack of depth behind him, and the numbers WSU had at wide receiver, prompted the Cougars to go to the air more than they did in 2017.

The other factor is the explosiveness of WSU’s offense. The 2019 Cougars averaged 7.1 yards per play and ran 920 plays. The 2017 team averaged 5.6 ypp and ran 1,016 plays.

Granted, this didn’t seem like an awful guess at the time. It seemed evident the Cougars would ride Borghi. I figured McIntosh would be a larger part of the equation than he was and there was still lots of uncertainty at QB, given the inexperience at the position.

Max Borghi leads the nation in receptions by RB.

– Cougar D.

When this was suggested in August, I responded, “I don’t see why not …” We were on the same page here and for good reason.

In 13 games, Borghi caught 86 passes – an average of 6.6 per game – and not only led the nation’s running backs, but finished with more receptions than all but 13 FBS receivers including his teammate, Winston, who had 85.

When sorting through the “receptions per game” category on the NCAA’s website, 50 players are listed per page. Borghi appears on the first page, but not until you click through to the fourth page will you find another running back. LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire is second in running back receptions, with 55, and played in 15 games as opposed to Borghi’s 13.

Fifty catches don’t seem unreasonable for Borghi as a junior, but in an offense that doesn’t use its running back in the passing game quite as much, expect this number to take a massive dip next season.

WSU will lead the Pac-12 in sacks.

– Danny D.

As I mentioned earlier, the Cougars were unable to apply much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which usually gave them more time to dissect WSU’s patchwork secondary.

WSU, which constantly rotated players at nose tackle and didn’t get the same production from the D-end position it had in years prior, notched 23 sacks – almost half as many as Pac-12 leader Oregon, which had 43.

The Cougars returned Will Rodgers III, Nnamdi Oguayo and added Lamonte McDougle to the mix after the former ESPN Freshman All-American redshirted in 2018. The defensive linemen, plus “Rush” linebackers Willie Taylor III and Dominick Silvels, gave WSU a strong core of players with experience. Many of them had productive seasons the year prior, so the concept of a strong pass-rush seemed plausible at the time.

I figured the Cougars could finish inside the top one-third of the conference in sacks, or at least in the top half, but the group underperformed, finishing only higher than Arizona, which sat firmly at the bottom of the league with 17 sacks.

Theo’s Dad will read more of his Son’s tweets and articles this season!

– David L.

If he didn’t, he has plenty of time to catch up now. #QuarantineWithTheSpokesmanReview

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