This season had highs, and lows, and everything in between. Now that the (disappointing) bowl game is over and the dust has cleared, we look back and evaluated WSU's 2017 football campaign.
SAN DIEGO – Despite having a veteran team laden with 20 seniors who all began the season in Washington State’s two-deep, perhaps it was telling that the three players sent out to face the media on Thursday after WSU’s 42-17 Holiday Bowl beatdown against Michigan State were all underclassmen.
Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson, sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski and freshman receiver Tay Martin represent the nucleus around which the Cougars will rebuild next season. And thanks to some unforeseen injuries, they all got significant playing time this year, which should help ease the team into 2018.
But first, a look back at 2017.
Due in large part to the presence of the aforementioned senior class led by quarterback Luke Falk, running back Jamal Morrow, offensive lineman Cole Madison, linebackers Isaac Dotson and Peyton Pelluer and defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale, 2017 began as the most hyped WSU season since – perhaps – Jason Gesser’s senior year in 2002.
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And for while, it appeared as if the Cougars would finally live up to the hype. For the first time in the Mike Leach era, WSU finally won an opener, blanking Montana State 31-0 in a show of dominance.
Slowly but steadily, the Cougars started collecting wins. First came the triple-overtime thrilled against Boise State that first introduced Coug fans to Hilinski’s heroics as the backup quarterback relieved Falk to lead WSU to a 47-44 comeback win. Then came the euphoric home win over a fifth-ranked USC team that caught the nation’s attention and gave Leach his first signature win at WSU. The Cougars went on to beat Oregon for the third year in a row, and peaked at a No. 8 ranking in the lead-up to the Cal game on Oct. 13.
But on a smoky day in the Bay Area, WSU’s world unraveled. The Cougars suffered a 37-3 thrashing at the hands of the Golden Bears and woke up to even more bad news the next day, when athletic director Bill Moos left for Nebraska.
The season was a rollercoaster ride from that point on, with some breathy highs – felling No. 18 Stanford, and Falk leading WSU to a win over Utah in his home state – followed by some exasperating lows.
Unfortunately for the Cougs, history repeated itself at the very end, when a once-promising season came to a numbing end with blowout back-to-back losses to UW and to Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.
After compiling three-straight seasons with at least eight wins, the Cougars have found consistency under Leach. But that’s a statement that, at this point, appears to be a double-edged sword.
WSU is now a perennial bowl team. But it has yet to show that it can beat the Huskies or win bowl games on a consistent basis. And that, is why that 10-win marker and conference titles continue to evade the Cougars.
Better luck next year, perhaps?
(If you’re so inclined, also take a peek back at WSU’s 2016 end-of-season report card for comparison’s sake)
Luke Falk’s senior season paled in comparison to his first two years as the Cougars’ starter. He threw more interceptions (13), fewer touchdowns (30) and was twice benched for Tyler Hilinski due in part to ineffectiveness, and in part to injury. As the bowl game revealed, Falk played through an injury to his left wrist for most of the season. But how much this affected his overall play is difficult to say. The numbers show that he was less efficient (66.9 completion percentage in 2017, 68.8 career completion percentage entering 2017) this season, and he’ll have some explaining to do when NFL scouts ask about, say, his performance in the Arizona game, when he was replaced by Hilinski. Overall, however, Falk finished his career as the Pac-12’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown and he left an indelible mark on the program.
WSU also got a glimpse of what Hilinski can do. Three games of substantial playing time is still a relatively small sample size. But Hilinski has looked comfortable in the Air Raid, and as he showed in WSU’s comeback against Boise State, he doesn’t cave in high-pressure situations, which is always key to good quarterbacking. Hilinski finished with seven touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 72.6 completion percentage. His athleticism – he had two rushing scores too — will be a nice addition to the offense next season, but he’ll have to work on minimizing turnovers and making better decisions.
Which outside receivers should we grade here? The two who led the team for most of the year – Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack – but are no longer around? Or the two – Dezmon Patmon and Tay Martin – who played sparingly but will lead the Cougars’ offense next year?
Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack were efficient, but Martin Jr., at least, reportedly didn’t mesh well in the locker room. The Cougars did, however, discover some young receiving talent to groom for next season. Martin (31 rec, 366 yards, 6 TD) is a freakishly athletic prospect whose raw ability and work ethic have him poised for a big sophomore year. Patmon (35 rec, 379 yards) came along toward the end of the season, and if he can find consistency, could play a large role in 2018. On the inside, 2017 introduced us to the speedy, entertaining Jamire Calvin (300 yards, 3 TD) and reliable Renard Bell (538 yards, 3 TD), and Kyle Sweet’s (533 yards, 2 TD) veteran leadership was a steadying presence in a young receivers room. The Cougars haven’t had this much talent at receiver in a long time.
The Cougars couldn’t quite duplicate the success of the run game from their breakout 2016 season. Gerard Wicks struggled with injuries for most of the year, and WSU consequently leaned more heavily on Jamal Morrow, who graduates with the third-most receptions (202) and all-purpose yards (4,219) in school history. James Williams led the offense with 71 receptions, setting a new WSU single season record for receptions by a running back.
WSU’s backs recorded a second-straight season in which they had 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving. But after eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark in seven games last season, the Cougars only had three 100-yard rushing games in 2017, and their 884 rushing yards paled in comparison to the 1,560 from the year before. WSU had 303 rush attempts in 2017, compared to 362 in 2016.
It seems unfair to grade the backs based on what appears to have strategic play-calling decisions beyond their control, but ultimately, the run game was simply not as productive this season. However, some of that was due to the regression of the offensive line.
There were times this year when the offensive line play was startlingly bad. The game that stands out, of course, was the loss to Cal, when WSU gave up nine – yes, nine! – sacks against a Bears defense that managed only 19 sacks in its other 11 games combined. And while the Cal performance was by far the O-line’s worst of the season, they also gave up five sacks in three other games – UW, USC and Boise State. WSU gave up 44 sacks this season, the highest since Falk has been under center. That ranked 124th among 129 FBS teams. Tackles Cole Madison and Andre Dillard did well on the edges, but the interior of the offensive line was shaky. It’s not a stretch to connect the poor O-line play with the decrease in quarterback and running back production.
Defensive line was the most-improved position for WSU this season. In Jeff Phelps’ first year at the helm, WSU’s pass rush was the pride of the defense. Hercules Mata’afa had the finest season of his career, setting a new single-season school record with 22.5 TFL, and recording 10.5 sacks. But Mata’afa wasn’t the only defensive lineman who upped his play. Daniel Ekuale had the best season of his career and Nnamdi Oguayo (7 TFL, 4 sacks) will be one to build around for next season.
When you go from 19 sacks one season to 37 the next (No. 20 nationally), you know your defensive line is doing something right. The next challenge for Phelps: How to restock the defensive tackle position, where he’ll lose Ekuale, Garrett McBroom, and – potentially, depending on his decision on the NFL Draft – Mata’afa.
Inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson is a miracle worker. Somehow, despite losing his three senior starting linebackers to a rash of injuries, he managed to help guide some young backers to success. You can’t replace the experience and leadership a fifth-year senior like Peyton Pelluer brings to the table, and there were some games – namely, Arizona – in which Wilson’s youngsters were exposed. But overall, Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers filled in admirably for their elders when called upon to do so. Woods earned 10 starts after Pelluer broke his foot and was lost for the year, and he concluded the season as WSU’s second-leading tackler, with 64 stops, including 11 TFL. Rogers also did fine in relief of Isaac Dotson when the senior suffered a concussion and missed four games in the middle of the season.
At outside linebacker, Roy Manning helped turn Frankie Luvu into a TFL machine after his move from inside to rush linebacker. Luvu’s breakout senior season yielded 6.5 sacks and 12 TFL – second only to Mata’afa in both categories. Hunter Dale put his stamp on the nickelback position and he’s proved to be a smart, athletic player who can drop into coverage as well as he can help stop the run.
Strong safety Jalen Thompson followed up a strong freshman season with a solid sophomore campaign. He led the defense with 73 tackles and four interceptions and was named an All-Pac-12 second teamer, and an AP All-Pac-12 first teamer. Overall, this group has more depth now than before. Darrien Molton reprised his role as starting cornerback but missed two games with a hand injury. Lucky for WSU, Sean Harper Jr. proved a more than capable fill-in, and he should compete for a starting spot next season, perhaps at the free safety spot vacated by senior Robert Taylor. The emergence of freshman cornerback Marcus Strong – who beat out Marcellus Pippins for the starting right cornerback spot through the season’s final six games also bodes well for 2018. Strong and Harper tied for the team lead with six pass breakups despite not being full-time starters.
How about Erik Powell as a candidate for the most improved player in 2017? The Cougars formerly erratic kicker pulled everything together for his senior year and delivered his finest season in a WSU uniform. For all the problems the Cougars had throughout the season, kicking was never one of them. Powell went 20 of 24 on field goals, converted 46 of 47 PATs, and – more importantly – never missed a field goal when WSU most needed it. He’ll leave WSU third in school history with 51 field goals and 317 points. And was a Lou Groza semifinalist and All-Pac-12 second-teamer. Powell was also reliable on kickoffs, averaging 62.1 yards on 68 kicks, with 31 touchbacks. The biggest glaring problems on special teams were the occasionally inconsistent punting and – toward the latter half of the season as injuries led to attrition – some spotty kick and punt coverage.