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the Gekko Files: previewing Washington State football in 2017

Expectations have a way of ruining the good times.

Washington State v Washington Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

As painful (for some) as they were, the days of Bill Doba and Paul Wulff brought with them a sense of clarity for the discerning WSU football fan. One simply expected a certain level of Cosmo Kramer-ish comedy to befall the program each season. If, by chance, a Rodney Dangerfield / “don’t get no respect” kind of year came along, it was that much more enjoyable.

That kind of clarity is a beautiful thing. It allows its participants to focus on the things that are really important to them. For WSU, those things might include the ESPN College Gameday flag thing, the occasional breakout player, treks back to the Palouse for reunions with the crew, a few “Cougin’ it” moments (g’bless the Urban dictionary), cowtipping tournaments and, of course, drinking.

In fact, lots of drinking.

Just as ‘Bama fans every year expect a run at the SEC title and a trip to the college football playoffs, Coug fans at one time could expect a level of futility that made catching flies with chopsticks look practical.

Sure, the football sucked. But those were easy days. Ones where Coug fans bonded with one another over a common misery. Days where they could wear the suckiness of their team as a badge of honor for the world to see. A raised can of Busch Light wasn’t so much a gesture of surrender to a moment but, rather, an acknowledgment that life was good as a Coug fan no matter the ineptitude of the team on the field.

Those were good times. Sadly, those days are over.

As Bill Connelly points out in his epic preview, WSU is now a Mike Leach team through and through. That is to say that they are competent, they have an identity and they can be expected to compete on any given Saturday.

But they are also - or at least have been - incomplete, inconsistent and just as likely to lose to an FCS program as they are to beat a top 10 ranked team on any of those same Saturdays.

The Cougs have won 26 games in the last four seasons - a stretch of success that they’ve not seen in Pullman since WSU completed three straight 10-win seasons between 2001 and 2003. Along with this competitiveness has come a sense that WSU should be achieving more. So much so that last year’s eight-win campaign was viewed by many Coug fans as “disappointing” and “unacceptable”.

That sentiment might be rooted in how WSU finished last year - dropping their final three including a dropkicking by UW and a stranglehold of a bowl game against Minnesota. Or it might simply be a symptom of a greater affliction...the curse of expectation. WSU fans want to see progress. They want to see wins. They want to see a PAC 12 North championship and a trip to the title game.

Is 2017 the season? Can Mike Leach finally punch through in what will be the last campaign of one of the best quarterbacks in school history? Is there finally enough defense to ensure that a deficit can be overcome and a lead protected? Is there ultimately enough character to ensure that “Couged it” moments are more relics of another era than realities of contemporary times?

These are all good questions. The Gekko has some good answers. Let’s open the file on the Washington State Cougars.

Washington State’s Offense

WSU Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
OL size WR explosiveness QB Luke Falk RB Keith Harrington (injury)
QB play QB depth OG Cody O'Connell WR Jamire Calvin (TFr)
RB depth WR Tavares Martin

We always start with quarterback in the WSU Gekko File because, duh.

Luke Falk is one of the finest quarterbacks to have ever worn a Cougar jersey and is certainly one of the top quarterbacks in the history of the PAC 12. His performance goes beyond his Air Raid aided statistics - which are gaudy to be sure (last season, Falk hit 70% of his 663 pass attempts for nearly 4500 yards and 38 TDs). Watch his tape and you see a QB who is disciplined and precise. He has excellent vision, can make all the classic throws and is exceptionally accurate at all three levels. What he lacks in arm strength, he makes up for in outstanding anticipation.

WSU can win with Luke Falk. For that matter, so could just about any other team.

The thing about the Air Raid, though, is that a single QB rarely makes it through the entire season unscathed. Depth at QB is a major challenge for Mike Leach. Sophomore Tyler Hilinski is the only other option that Leach has at QB should anything cause his star to miss meaningful time. Beyond that, things get dicey.

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Coug fans are hopeful that their offensive line can make the point of QB depth moot. The Cougs played well as a unit a year ago - particularly in pass protection - and return this season a couple of studs in Maxwell Award candidate offensive guard Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison. When you look at the line, the first thing that jumps out is their size. It’s a good thing that Falk stands 6’4” otherwise he’d never see over O’Connell (6’8” 370), Madison (6’5” 315) or sophomore OT Cedric Bigge-Duren (6’6” 321), who along with starting OT Andre Dillard figures to be in the mix for a significant role this fall. Despite losing C Riley Sorenson a year ago, there is much to like about WSU’s line. While they won’t blow you away with their athleticism, they have the depth and talent to be a strength for the Cougs.

We are used to talking about the receiving corps as a perennial strength for WSU. It’s not exactly clear that we can do so again this year. The graduations of Gabe Marks and River Cracraft along with the dismissal (again) of Kyrin Priester are challenges to overcome. But there are certainly no shortages of bodies. This is Mike Leach, after all. He signs a new receiver every morning when he picks up his Starbucks.

Junior Tavares Martin is now “the man”. The 6’1” “X” receiver racked up over 700 yards and 7 TDs a year ago. He’s certainly capable enough, but it remains to be seen if he can handle being the #1 in this offense (which may or may not even matter to a QB like Falk). Big Isaiah Johnson-Mack is the breakout candidate while slot receiver Robert Lewis promises to be a reliable safety outlet for Falk. Add in guys like Kyle Sweet and Dezmon Patmon (who might also really break out in 2017) and you realize that there is plenty of experienced depth here.

Many critics of argued that WSU would create more explosiveness in their passing game - their yards per completion were one of the worst in the country a year ago - if they could make better use of the talent that they have on hand at Running Back. This might be true. The triumvirate of Jamal Morrow, Boobie Williams and Gerard Wicks averaged nearly 6.0 yds/carry last season despite WSU rushing for a paltry 1500 yards overall. Each of those guys are quality runners in addition to being effective pass catchers. The question is whether or not they can be better leveraged in Leach’s offense.

WSU clearly has all the talent it requires to be a top five offense in the PAC. Whether or not it can graduate beyond its “dink and dunk” tendencies is the only issue that remains to be addressed. A lack of an established deep threat and a heretofore unwillingness to take many risks have conspired to make WSU somewhat easy to defend. It’ll be interesting to see what changes Leach and co. make this season.

Washington State’s Defense

WSU Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
pass rush secondary experience DE Hercules Mata'afa DB Grant Porter (RFr)
LB experience big play prevention LB Peyton Pelleur LB Mason Vinyard (RFr)
DB Darrien Molton DB Sean Harper (TFr)

WSU’s 2017 defense is a story of “good news, bad news”. On the positive note, there is as much going on for the Cougs on their defensive line as they’ve ever had going on. That’s important because things tend to degrade quickly the further back you go.

Hercules Mata’afa is a name that most PAC 12 fans have learned to both recognize and pronounce. The junior defensive end anchored what was a surprisingly disruptive line registering 13.5 TFLs and 5 sacks alone. His fellow end, sophomore Nnamdi Oguayo tallied 3 TFLs and 4 sacks of his own. This tandem, along with NT Daniel Ekuale figures to build on that success from a year ago.

Arizona State v Washington State
Hercules Mata’afa is one of the most havoc creating d-linemen in the PAC
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

I like WSU’s line situation not just for its front three, but also for its depth. Each position figures to be backed up by an upper classmen just as a couple of younger players - keep an eye on sophomore Derek Moore - start to become bigger parts of the rotation. WSU’s reserves might not have the same pocket pressuring capabilities, but there are enough grown men here to keep the Cougs in every ball game.

The linebacking corps is an interesting situation. What it lacks in overall athleticism, it more than makes up for in experience. There are five seniors and three juniors in this unit including the reliable Peyton Pelleur (76 tackles) in the middle along with Isaac Dotson and Frankie Luvu on the outside. I worry that this group, as a whole, doesn’t see the kind of return on playmaking ability that one would expect when going with smaller-bodied players in the middle. If WSU’s d-line can’t keep offensive linemen off of the next level - and that is not their strength - then the linebackers can get neutralized. But there are a handful of savvy football players in WSU’s middle level that ought to hold up pretty well.

Of most concern is the Coug secondary, a unit that seemed to give up leads and big plays as voluminously as a keg gives up beer at a WSU tailgate. In fact, WSU’s secondary was in large part responsible for giving up a conference worst 24 plays of 30+ yards in 2016. This seems like a section of the field that is perpetually young and perpetually not quite right. Especially with the graduation of star S Shalom Luani, 2017 appears to be no exception.

There is some experience here. Safety Robert Taylor and CB Marcellus Pippins are both seniors who haven’t exactly stood out but know their positions. Junior CB Darrien Molton is coming off of a strong season highlighted with seven PBUs and might have some upside as a perimeter defender. Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson is another player who earned a lot of run a year ago and has had his moments.

However, much of what happens with the WSU secondary this year will depend on the emergence of young players. Sophomore CB Marcus Strong is one such player. He’s a probable starter who will have to grow up quickly. True freshman Zaire Webb and Josh Talbott are a couple of other young players who might get their numbers called early. If any or all of these players fail to even just hold their own, WSU might have difficulty containing big plays and stopping opponents from moving chains.

Still, there are worse defensive situations than the one that WSU finds itself in going into 2017. “Serviceable” is an appropriate description for a unit that might lack the kind of size and speed that is ideal but is balanced out by skill and experience.

One Breakout Player

DB Justus Rodgers

Has to be a wide receiver, right? Maybe. There are definitely some candidates there who are going to get opportunities including the 6’4” Dezmon Patmon and incoming freshman slot receiver Jamire Calvin.

But Justus Rodgers is just too tantalizing to not mention. The redshirt freshman is a 6’2” 225 lb nickel back. 225 pounds?!? With the turnover and competitive opportunities in that Wazzu secondary, it's nearly inconceivable to me that Rodgers won’t get some kind of shot given his physical dimensions. Whether he shows up as a safety or a corner, he ought to be able to find the field.

I’m not sure what would constitute “success” as a breakout candidate in this case. I’m guessing that Coug fans would be pretty happy with a couple of PBU’s and a few highlight reel smackdowns similar to how JoJo McIntosh handles his business. Truth be told, so would I. Anything that increases the confidence and swagger of that Wazzu secondary is a big positive.

Projecting WSU

So, here’s the deal with Washington State. They are a good all around football team with no absurdly glaring weaknesses. Unlike seasons past, there really is no reason to think that this team is likely or even capable of dropping one to an FCS team. They are relatively strong (and deep) in the trenches and they have a great deal of experience throughout the roster. Coupled with solid QB play, that is a pretty good recipe.

The problem with WSU is that it is still not clear how they are going to break out of the mold of a dink and dunk kind of offense. I don’t see a lot of playmakers who are going to be able to swing momentum in the close games that WSU will certainly find themselves in all season long. Similarly, I’m not sure who in that secondary is going to step forward and be the kind of pick-6 threat that can changes the tide of a game. In contrast, UW has that luxury with guys like Taylor Rapp and Budda Baker before him.

For WSU to compete for a championship, they are going to need to be off-the-charts efficient on both sides of the ball and they are going to need to catch some breaks along the way.

Outside of not having to go on the road until October, their schedule may not provide too many of those breaks. Their first three games feature a home game against what will be a ranked Boise State game and an early season conference matchup against Oregon State. The middle of the schedule is highlighted by a home game against USC. The end of the schedule features a three-game grindfest against the three most physical teams in the conference: vs Stanford, @ Utah and @ Washington. To make things worse, their BYE doesn’t come until the week before the Apple Cup. Not ideal.

I fear the worst for WSU this year. Not because this isn’t a good football team (it is) but because the circumstances just don’t seem to be lining up in their favor. The ceiling is probably a five-win conference schedule with four being the most plausible outcome. That would be most disappointing in what will be the final season for guys like Falk, O’Connell and (probably) Mata’afa. But it is a necessary step as WSU continues their slow march towards the ultimate goal of a conference championship.