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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 68: Washington State

Pullman’s not Los Angeles. But you knew that. Pullman isn’t Seattle, which you also knew. Pullman is different: it’s more accepting of, let’s say, quirky personalities. Not crazy, mind you; when it comes to crazy, Pullman is as unforgiving as any place in America. But Pullman is a place where a coach can let his hair down, such as Mike Price did for a generation. It’s quirk-friendly, in short. When coaching the Cougars, you can be yourself. You can be wacky. You can call out your players’ girlfriends, co-host the evening news, make jokes and crack wise — it’s cool. It’s Pullman. You can be yourself. Also: you can win.

Conference
Pac-12, North

Location
Pullman, Wash.

Nickname
Cougars

Returning starters
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 85

2011 record
(4-8, 2-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 87

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    at B.Y.U.
  • Sept. 8
    Eastern Wash.
  • Sept. 14
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 22
    Colorado
  • Sept. 29
    Oregon
  • Oct. 6
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 13
    California
  • Oct. 27
    at Stanford
  • Nov. 3
    at Utah
  • Nov. 10
    U.C.L.A.
  • Nov. 17
    at Arizona St.
  • Nov. 23
    Washington

Last year’s prediction

What it will take for Wulff to return in 2012 is up for debate, as some say merely more improvement, others say at least five wins, other say nothing less than a bowl berth. I’m leaning towards some combination of the first two: definite improvement on the field with at least two added wins. I think we’ll see at least four wins. I actually think five, though two will come over the weaklings that open the season. Washington State is not yet a bowl team, in my opinion, but this is without question – and it’s not even close to being close – the best team under Wulff, if not the program’s best team since 2006, the last time the Cougars won six games. All told, things are coming together in Pullman; Wulff’s plan took time to put into place, but the pieces are almost there. This is Washington State’s best team in years.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Last season, Paul Wulff’s final year with the program, might have gone differently if two things had occurred. The first: If Washington State doesn’t collapse in the fourth quarter against San Diego State. Off to a 2-0 start – with flimsy wins, but bear with me – a win over the Aztecs, who would win eight games on the year, would have left the Cougars needing wins in three of nine conference games to reach bowl eligibility. The second: If W.S.U. completes one of two passes in the fourth quarter against U.C.L.A., extending a drive that would eventually end in a field goal; that made the score 25-20 with six minutes left, a deficit the Bruins would erase with a touchdown on the following drive. Then 3-1, or 4-0 with a win over S.D.S.U., the win would have made the Cougars a near bowl-lock. Consider the ramifications of two early-season losses. One, the defeats robbed W.S.U. of some much-needed confidence. Two, the difference between four and six wins meant and means the difference between Wulff and Mike Leach – because I think that the program retains the former if he leads the Cougars to a bowl berth.

High point A 37-27 win over Arizona State on Nov. 12. This was the Cougars’ best win on the year – the other three were nothing to write home about – and the team’s first win since the first day of October. While the writing was on the wall for Wulff, his team did play fairly well over the season’s final month,

Low point Another loss to Washington, followed by another three tough losses: S.D.S.U., U.C.L.A. and Utah. The Cougars tied the Utes at 27-27 with a 17-yard field goal as time expired but lost in overtime. W.S.U. had the ball right on the doorstep near the end of regulation but without any timeouts, leaving it with no choice but to try to throw for the game-winning touchdown. The field goal tied it, but the Utes won in the first overtime.

Tidbit Washington State has not reached bowl play or posted a winning season since 2003, when it capped Bill Doba’s first season – a 10-win debut; his tenure quickly went sour – with a Holiday Bowl win over Texas. This bowl drought is by far the longest in the Pac-12. Eight teams reached bowl play last fall: California, Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, U.S.C., U.C.L.A. and Utah. A ninth, Arizona, reached the postseason in 2010. Oregon State reached bowl play in 2009. The next-longest bowl drought in the Pac-12 belongs to Colorado, which last reached the postseason in 2007 – a four-year bowl-less streak, or as long as the Cougars’ streak in 2007. This program is starving for a taste of success.

Tidbit (Apple Cup edition) W.S.U. has lost three straight in the Apple Cup after taking four of five from 2004-8 – the 2008 win, which left U.W. winless, remains one of my favorite Pac-12 moments of recent memory. The rivalry has been one of the nation’s most competitive over the last decade, with two exceptions: Washington’s 30-0 win in 2009 and last year’s 38-21 win. Each of the remaining eight games have been decided by eight points or less, with each team winning four times. If you remove the 2009 and 2011 games from the equation, the average final score over the last decade has been 27.1-26.0 – Washington State.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 S Erik Coleman (Detroit), FB Jed Collins (New Orleans), S Eric Frampton (Minnesota), WR Brandon Gibson (St. Louis), OG David Gonzales (San Francisco), K Jason Hanson (Detroit), WR Jason Hill (Denver), LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis (St. Louis), K Rian Lindell (Buffalo), DE Ropati Pitoitua (Kansas City), CB Marcus Trufant (Seattle), OG Zack Williams (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

Most popular “second-favorite” team in F.B.S.
1. Washington State.
2. Boise State.
3. SEC opponent in B.C.S. championship game.
4. One of three service academies.
5. West Virginia.

Coaching

Mike Leach (Brigham Young ’83), entering his first season. Let one quote, given after Texas Tech steamrolled Nebraska in 2004, speak for Leach:

“The interesting thing about football is that football is the only sport where you quit playing when you get a lead. In golf, you keep trying to score well when you’re ahead. In basketball, they don’t quit shooting when they’re ahead. In hockey, they don’t quit shooting when they’re ahead. In boxing, you don’t quit punching when you’re ahead. But in football, somehow, magically, you’re supposed to quit playing when you’re ahead. Well, I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t do it like that.”

There you go. Leach validated this program one second after he signed on the dotted line – he made Washington State cool again, and it’s been a long time since the Cougars were part of the national picture. One thing that has been forgotten over the last two years, since Leach was fired at Texas Tech, is just how successful a head coach he was over a decade in Lubbock. He went 84-43 with the Red Raiders from 2000-9, posting the most wins, the most bowl appearances and the highest winning percentage of any coach in school history. He led the program to a bowl game in each of his 10 seasons, winning at least seven games every year and at least eight games in each of his last eight years – with a high of 11 wins in 2008, when he led Tech to the cusp of a B.C.S. berth. He made the Red Raiders famous for their aerial attack, piloting offensive units perennially among the top five in the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring. In 2009, his final season with the program, Tech averaged 510.0 yards and 37.0 points per game; in contrast, in 1999, the year prior to his arrival, the Red Raiders averaged 324.8 yards per game, 175.4 of which came via the passing game. Prior to his arrival in Lubbock, Leach spent one season as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, where he helped the Sooners jump from 11th in the Big 12 in offense to first; the Oklahoma passing offense went from averaging 109.9 yards per game in 1998 to 321.7 in 1999. Before that, Leach served as Hal Mumme’s offensive coordinator at Kentucky (1997-98), Division II Valdosta State (1992-96) and N.A.I.A. Iowa Wesleyan (1989-91). He’s back. Get ready.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Leach will call his own plays, of course. His defensive coordinator will be Mike Breske, who spent the last two seasons in the same position at Montana. Breske, who will also coach the defensive backs, was Joe Glenn’s coordinator at Wyoming from 2003-8. Four assistants are back for a second run with Leach: outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons, formerly of E.C.U., was with the Red Raiders from 2008-9; offensive line coach Clay McGuire was Tech’s special teams coordinator in 2008 and its running back coach in 2009; inside receivers coach Eric Morris played for Leach from 2005-8; and special teams coordinator Eric Russell, who spent the last two seasons at Tennessee, coached under Leach in 2009. Like the rest, Russell couldn’t turn down the opportunity for a reunion.

Linebackers coach Jeff Choate comes over from Boise State, where he spent the last six years. Running backs coach Jim Mastro – Nevada, mostly, but also U.C.L.A. last fall – is one of the best in the business. Former Arizona defensive line coach Joe Salave’a assumes the same role under Leach. And outside linebackers coach Paul Volero spent the last two years at Key West High School after three years at Central Michigan; it seems likely that Volero and Leach crossed paths while the latter was catching some rays on vacation.

Players to watch

Washington State’s most interesting quarterback battle will occur 12 months from now, when Leach will head into the spring with at least three players angling for the starting role. One will be sophomore Connor Halladay, who I thought acquitted himself well as a late-season starter last fall — battling inexperience and injuries to lead W.S.U. to a win over Arizona State before stumbling against Utah. Another is junior David Gilbertson, who was probably the most pleasant surprise during the spring. The third might be current high school senior Tyler Bruggman, who is scheduled to sign with Leach and the Cougars next February. It’s going to be interesting; the winner will get the keys to one of the friendliest offenses in college football.

This spring’s competition ended with a whimper: Jeff Tuel took control early and cemented his role as the Cougars’ starter, though Halladay’s lingering liver issues — still giving him fits — prevented him from making a serious run at the top spot. But was there really a competition? Yes, if only because of the coaching change; Tuel is the Cougars’ best option heading into 2012, but needed to show the new staff his ability to handle the load in the new system. He’s off to a good start: Tuel was dynamite during the spring game, showcasing the offense’s big-strike capabilities — even if this defense wasn’t bringing much to the table.

Look for Tuel to take advantage of this opportunity. As a freshman and sophomore, Tuel was saddled with the everyday growing pains typical for a fresh-faced starter and an offense largely devoid of talent at the skill positions; in addition, the offense itself was far too cut-and-dry for Tuel to showcase himself in the quarterback-heavy Pac-12. Given more to work with last fall, Tuel suffered two painful injuries: a broken collarbone cost him all of September and a troubling calf ailment cost him all of November. All Tuel has left is one season to show what he’s made of. I think he goes out in style. Quarterback competition? Not until next year.

Junior receiver Marquess Wilson (82 receptions for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns) will break the program record for receiving yards roughly sometime in October, two years and change into his college career. By the time he’s done — even if he’s gone in January — Wilson will own every one of Washington State’s meaningful receiving records. What is he going to achieve in this offense? Consider: Wilson has produced from day one in a far more pedestrian offense, converting on third down and burning opponents deep, so the sky is the limit as the top target in Leach’s system. Barring injury, what you’re going to see from Wilson are the same totals a receiver like Michael Crabtree put together in Lubbock — 100 receptions, 1,500 yards and 15-plus touchdowns. You couldn’t ask for a better outside receiver in this offense.

Leach inherits enough weapons to make the passing game work from the start. One is Tuel; a second is Wilson, who is going to be productive enough to finally work his way out of the shadows of the Pac-12’s crop of high-profile underclassmen receivers. What W.S.U. needs at receiver is a little more depth, which is why you’re going to see several unknowns work their way into the rotation — returning receivers like Blair Bomber, Drew Loftus, Bennett Bontemps and others.

One young receiver that Leach praised during the spring was redshirt freshman Dominique Williams, who will battle sophomore Kristoff Williams — no relation — for the right to join Wilson at outside receiver. Inside, W.S.U. will go with the duo of Andrei Lintz, a tight end-sized receiver, and Bobby Ratliff (28 receptions for 348). Prepare for the crooked numbers: five players will make 45 or more grabs, led by Wilson.

The oft-repeated line about the Cougars’ backfield is that Leach can’t tell them apart — each contender for the starting job is 5’9, so they all look the same from behind. Yes, no back leaps off the page. But there is a clear top two, even if W.S.U. has given no indication of where it might go on the depth chart. The best fit for this offense is sophomore Rickey Galvin (602 yards, 5 touchdowns), and not merely because he’s the best pure runner; where Galvin stands out is in his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. As we saw at Texas Tech, the offense’s top back needs to be able to serve as a security blanket in the passing game. After making 28 catches as a rookie, I have no doubt that Galvin’s dual-threat ability makes him the Cougars’ best option.

And he could have a big year, though not in a traditional sense. What Galvin could do is gain 1,500 yards of total offense as a runner and receiver, which would make him a borderline all-conference pick. You’ll also see senior Carl Winston (442 yards) land more than a few carries, perhaps as a short-yardage back, and junior Leon Brooks might have impressed the staff to the point where he gets touches in certain situations. Yes, the running game is secondary. That doesn’t mean that the backfield won’t play a big role in this offense.

You know those thigh-to-thigh splits? Throw them out the window. The biggest transition this front takes — ignoring the idea that they’ll now be in pass protection 70 percent of the time — will be the move into the widened alignment in Leach’s offense. Yeah, defensive linemen salivate when seeing those potential lanes; nevertheless, Leach’s lines in Lubbock were often superb in pass protection, stifling an opposing pass rush dreaming of unabated runs at the quarterback. It takes time to grasp the system, but don’t think for a moment that Leach doesn’t stress the importance of a stout and steady front — protecting the quarterback is the first and most vital task in this offense.

The Cougars will shuffle things slightly to make up for the loss of two starters. The first step was moving potential all-conference pick John Fullington, a junior, from left guard out to left tackle, replacing David Gonzales. How the rest of the line plays out might depend on where W.S.U. goes at right tackle. If Leach and McGuire go back to Wade Jacobson, who started the first month of last season before being injured, it would shift Dan Spitz to right guard and, most likely, Elliot Bosch to left guard. if the Cougars go with Spitz at tackle, Jacobson could swing inside to either guard spot. What’s the best plan? At least in the beginning, for W.S.U. to go with its best starting five. In that case, the front five would have Fullington and Spitz at tackle, Jacobson and Bosch at guard and Matt Goetz at center.

Not to go too far down the rabbit hole, but another scenario could see former JUCO transfer Rico Forbes at right tackle. That would move Jacobson to right guard, Spitz to left guard and push Bosch inside, replacing Goetz — or Goetz would start, making Bosch a valuable reserve lineman all along the interior. Would that be best? It’s hard to say. For now, the Cougars can feel some security in the fact that the line is strongest on the blind side. If this line isn’t going to be great, it’ll be just good enough to keep the offense from falling apart.

Washington State will move to the 3-4 under Breske’s direction, but don’t be surprised to see this defense remain extremely multiple throughout the season. For now, the Cougars’ personnel best matches up with a 4-3 set; moving to the 3-4 will test this team’s depth at linebacker, for instance, and the front three lacks the desired size to make things work from the start. But in the big picture, the system change is good for this team. One thing the 3-4 does is add speed, which should help W.S.U. during Pac-12 play, and it also should help beef up last season’s paltry pass rush. Just don’t expect this defense to follow the offense’s suit and make a night-and-day improvement come September.

I’ll touch on the linebackers below. One position change that will impact the front seven is Travis Long’s move from end to outside linebacker – though it’s important to keep in mind that Long was not a good fit at 3-4 end. Nevertheless, this position change does rob the defensive line of its only threat, placing significant pressure on the current two-deep to stand tall at the point of attack.

So who’s going to play on the nose? The best bet would be senior Anthony Laurenzi (25 tackles, 6.5 for loss), a 12-game starter at tackle a season ago. W.S.U. does have options at tackle behind Laurenzi, such as sophomore Kalafitoni Pole and JUCO transfer Ioane Gauta, so it’ll be interesting to see if one of the three – Gauta, perhaps – moves outside to end due to a lack of playing time. And there’s one end position still up for debate, though redshirt freshman Xavier Cooper has locked down a starting role thanks to his prototypical size and high ceiling. If I had to guess which end will join Cooper – and it is still a bit of a guessing game following the coaching change – I’d go with junior Justin Clayton, a tackle in the previous system. Clayton and Cooper have the size to handle the duties involved with playing end in the 3-4 system.

Two things to watch for at end: Long moving down in certain packages and sophomore Logan Mayes wreaking havoc when given the opportunity. Yes, W.S.U. will continue to dabble with a 4-3, as noted. That would put Long on the field on clear passing downs, perhaps, opposite of Mayes, who will be asked to do one thing and one thing only: get to the quarterback. At this point, due to a lack of girth, that’s probably all Mayes can do. But that’s enough, especially if he can demand double-teams on third down.

Good news: W.S.U. returns every significant piece of last year’s secondary. The bad news is that these same players were ripped to shreds last fall. The issue is that the Cougars don’t have cornerbacks capable of hanging with the Pac-12’s elite crop of receivers; while there’s depth and experience at the position, not one strikes me as a stopper. The situation is better at safety, where W.S.U. has four players capable of grabbing a starting role, but from top to bottom, this secondary needs work.

And the secondary needs help from this pass rush – but that’s out of this group’s control. The likely starting four stars juniors Nolan Washington (24 tackles) and Damante Horton (31 tackles, 4 interceptions) at cornerback, senior Tyree Toomer (60 tackles) at free safety and junior Deone Bucannon (80 tackles, 3 interceptions) at strong safety. While Toomer and Bucannon will be tough to unseat, look for backups Anthony Carpenter and Casey Locker (48 tackles) to see significant playing time.

The question: Can W.S.U. really expect any marked improvement against the pass with the same cornerback rotation? Probably not. But the hope is that youngsters like Tracy Clark or Brandon Golden can improve to the point where they’re either pushing the incumbents for a starting role – making them better, due to this push – or taking over outright.

Where have you gone, Reid Forrest? The Cougars missed their Heisman hopeful – tongue in cheek – last fall, when then-senior Dan Wagner struggled replicating Forrest’s sublime punting, and hope that JUCO transfer Michael Bowlin can help bail out this defense by flipping field position. The Cougars bring back kicker Andrew Furney, who has been strong from close and from distance, albeit with a small sample size. What W.S.U. has in Russell is one of the best coordinators in the country, so look for this team to make steady improvement across the board on special teams.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker This was the defense’s most questionable grouping heading into the spring. There were two reasons for concern: one, the Cougars lost Alex Hoffman-Ellis to graduation and C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi to violations of team rules – the team’s three starters last fall; and two, the defense is moving into a 3-4 base set, which will strain the limits of depth. Not quite a solid combination. But the clouds have lessened quite a bit since March, thanks in part to one no-brainer of a position change and the solid play of several fairly untested underclassmen. W.S.U.’s linebacker corps is still an issue, mind you, but compared to the sense of doom and gloom in March, the position as a whole has turned over a new leaf.

Long (42 tackles, 12.0 for loss, 4.0 sacks) is a great fit at outside linebacker. Then again, he was a great fit at end; Long’s a great fit anywhere Breske and W.S.U. put him, whether he stands up at linebacker or gets moved back to end when the defense goes with a four-linemen set. Long will play buck linebacker, which by this system’s definition is a hybrid end-linebacker: he’ll be asked to do more things in space, like run with tight ends or try to keep up with backs, but Long’s primary goal will be to continue bringing pressure on the quarterback. Here’s guessing he has no problem adapting to his new role.

But due to those losses, Long is the only linebacker with adequate game experience – and that experience does come at a different position. One of the most pleasant developments during the spring was the solid showings from three underclassmen: redshirt freshman Darryl Monroe, sophomore Chester Su’a and junior Eric Oertel. As of today, with five freshmen arriving over the summer, that trio joins Long to round out the Cougars’ starting lineup on the second level. Su’a (22 tackles) will play on the weak side after starting four games on the strong side last fall. Monroe, who will play in the middle, is raw and unpolished, but there’s talent for Breske to work with. I’ll be rooting for Oertel, a special teams maven who bounced from defense to offense and back again over his first two years.

Game(s) to watch

The only two teams I think Washington State can’t beat are Oregon and Stanford; the Ducks are too fast and the Cardinal are going to manhandle the Cougars along the line of scrimmage. But all other games are up in the air, including dates with B.Y.U., Utah and Washington. Even with this team clearly improved in many areas – personnel and coaching – W.S.U. does need to take care of business against teams like U.N.L.V., Colorado and Arizona State. One loss there might mean the difference between five wins and a bowl berth. And there’s a chance – due to Washington’s ridiculous schedule – that the Apple Cup winner reaches the postseason while the other stays home. Not that you were planning on not watching this year’s meeting, but that would make the 105th Apple Cup must-see television.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Let’s open with a few words on Paul Wulff. While his tenure was a disappointment where it counts, in the standings, the former W.S.U. offensive lineman did leave the program in a better place than when he arrived, especially when it comes to this current team’s overall talent level. You’ll begin to appreciate this fact at some point this season, perhaps as early as September, when Leach starts winning with the players handed to him by the previous staff. Leach has a quarterback, the receiver corps, a few nice running backs and enough returning experience up front for this system to work like gangbusters from B.Y.U. through the Apple Cup. Are there issues on offense? Of course; we’re not going to see vintage Texas Tech in 2012. We are going to see a mammoth uptick in production in every area, however, even if one or two issues remain: the offensive line needs to find a starting five, for one, and the Cougars could use a strong fall camp from two or three of those young receivers. But the sky is the limit, thanks to the talent, experience, depth in spots and overall coaching. It’s the defense that will keep W.S.U. from being a Pac-12 factor this fall, even if the move to a 3-4 will ultimately benefit the program. So this is Washington State entering year one under Leach: potentially dynamic offensively, potentially sieve-like defensively. From top to bottom — despite the coaching change, the issues on defense, the few areas that need further tweaking on offense — this is a team destined for bowl play, even if at only six wins.

Are you having fun yet? Leach, back in the game, at a school that adores him, in a conference fit for his style, with a program built to adopt his unique, us-against-them mentality. You couldn’t draw it up any better. As if you needed another reason to get excited about this coming season. Leach is back. In Pullman. With a team more than willing to do whatever it takes to get back into the Pac-12 and national picture. Is it September yet?

Dream season Washington State loses three times during Pac-12 play: Oregon, Stanford and Utah. On Nov. 23, the 8-3 Cougars beat the 5-6 Huskies by a score of… 49-10. Leach shakes Steve Sarkisian’s hand and then hops into a hot air balloon, which he flies around the world before returning in time to lead W.S.U. into bowl play. The city is renamed Pullman-by-Leach, Wash., and Leach is named Mayor Emeritus.

Nightmare season The Cougars aren’t exactly successful from the start, dropping eight games to match last season’s mark. Don’t blame the offense; blame the defense, which struggles in the new system.

In case you were wondering

Where do Washington State fans congregate? For Washington State coverage, you can consult CougFan.com and CougZone.com for message board chatter and recruiting news; the Web sites of The Spokesman Review and The Seattle Times for newspaper coverage — especially Bob Condotta, who is so respected as to bridge the gap between Washington and Washington State fans; and for a blog’s take, the aptly-named WSU Football Blog and Coug Center. Both of those blogs are among the  best in the Pac-12.

Washington State’s all-name nominee WR Blair Bomber.

Word Count

Through 57 teams 218,404.

Up Next

Who is No. 67? By the time this season ends, tomorrow’s program will have played every F.B.S. and F.C.S. program in its home state over the last two years.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Utah State — played BYU and Weber State in 2011; will play Utah and Southern Utah (and BYU again) in 2012

  2. TheMadPhatter says:

    67 must be Utah State.

  3. Steve says:

    Love the arbitrary top 5. I pull for every team on that list with WVU being my team. It’s like you’re in my head.

  4. Dario says:

    Paul, Wazzu’s loss to San Diego State was a narrow loss. The Aztecs beat the cougars 49-24.

  5. Dario says:

    Edit-

    Paul, Wazzu’s loss to San Diego State wasn’t a narrow loss. The Aztecs beat the cougars 49-24.

  6. Tuel could have a monster season in Mike Leach’s offense. Tuel was WSU’s starting QB at the start of last season until the injuries. He’s 6-3, 220 pounds and is on some NFL watch lists. Marquess Wilson should also have a great season.

    The Wazzu offense should be fun. Defense? There could be some PAC 12 shootouts this year in Pullman.

  7. Bryan says:

    Awesome write up as usual

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