The team’s five losses show that while WSU is much improved from the pre-Leach era, it is not yet ready to join the likes of UW and Colorado in the category of “overhaul completed.”

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Washington State’s 2016 season unfolded in a confounding picture of extremes.

At their peak, the Cougars reeled off a school-record seven straight Pac-12 Conference wins en route to an eight-game winning streak that included a solid victory over then-15th-ranked Stanford.

But Stanford also turned out to be the only Power Five team WSU beat that finished with a winning record. The other six Pac-12 opponents WSU defeated finished with a combined 34-50 record.

The Cougars’ two Pac-12 losses at the end of the season came against the league’s division champions – No. 10 Colorado (10-3, with a bowl game still to go) and No. 4 UW (12-1, and prepping for its national semifinal game against Alabama.)

And of course there were season-opening losses to Eastern Washington (12-2), which reached the FCS playoff semifinals, and Boise State, which went 10-3 but lost to Baylor in its bowl game.

So what to make of the 2016 Cougars? As with most things, the truth generally lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes.

It’s not easy to win eight straight games, and the Cougars have now recorded back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time since 2002-03. Given how awful this program was for a decade, that is an accomplishment in itself.

But as even Gabe Marks and Mike Leach admitted, those five losses that bookended the win streak and sent WSU into the offseason on a three-loss tailspin really put a damper on things.

Those five losses show that while WSU is much improved from the pre-Leach era, it is not yet ready to join the likes of UW and Colorado in the category of “overhaul completed.”

WSU is still very much a work in progress. Things are trending in the right direction, and expectations have advanced beyond the point where getting to a bowl constitutes success. For Washington State to take the next step in its evolution as a program, it has to learn how to start and finish strong, Leach needs to find a way to get his team to open the season hungry and stay hungry till the very end.

The Cougars lacked a killer instinct this season, and it showed in the way they came out flat in every game they lost.

If quarterback Luke Falk returns for his senior season in 2017 as Leach thinks he will, the Cougars will have a nucleus of talent to keep progressing, though they’ll have to break in some new receivers.

WSU has yet to cement itself as one of the Pac-12’s perennial favorites, but two eight-win seasons in a row indicate a level of consistency the Cougars haven’t had since Jason Gesser played quarterback more than a decade ago.

The next step in WSU’s evolution is to hit that elusive 10-win mark and compete for Rose Bowls.

Here are the season’s grades:



Falk’s 2016 numbers are almost identical to those from his sophomore season in 2015. The biggest difference were the three interceptions he threw against UW that gave him 11 picks on the season compared to the eight from 2015 – though, he didn’t play against UW last season. Overall, Falk had long stretches of brilliance, but like the rest of the team, he had moments where he faltered too – namely, against UW, Colorado and Minnesota.

Still, not many quarterbacks complete 70 percent of their passes over the course of a season. Falk set a school season record with a 70.0 completion percentage, tied his 2015 record with 38 touchdown passes and is the Pac-12’s all-time leader with 1,047 career completions. If he returns in 2017, this team will be a Pac-12 title contender.

Grade: B

Wide receivers

Gabe Marks finished his illustrious career with WSU records for catches (316) receiving yards (3,453) and touchdowns (37). River Cracraft ended his career No. 2 on WSU’s receptions list (218) and No. 6 with 2,701 career receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns. Both players had big senior seasons, but Cracraft, particularly, made his presence known through his absence. Three of WSU’s losses came after Cracraft tore his ACL and was done for the year. Without the sure-handed Cracraft in the lineup, WSU struggled to sustain drives.

The Cougars have some young receiving talent waiting in the wings — Tavares Martin (728 yards, 7 TD), Isaiah Johnson-Mack (246 yards, 1 TD) and Kyle Sweet (357 yards, 2 TD) come to mind. But no one really stepped up to fill Cracraft’s spot in the final three games, and now WSU must find a way to replace both his and Marks’ production.

Grade: B –

Running backs

The Cougars were a force on the ground in 2016, and the best part is that all three backs — Gerard Wicks (475 rush yards, 11 rush TD), Jamal Morrow (575 rush yards, 6 rush TD) and James Williams (585 yards, 6 rush TD) will be back next year.

They gave WSU a credible running game, and they also contributed immensely to the passing game, with Morrow setting a school record for career receptions by a running back (142). WSU’s 23 rushing touchdowns in 2016 were the most since the 1997 team scored 27, and WSU running backs finished the season with over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in WSU history and the first time for a Mike Leach-coached team.

Grade: A

Offensive line

After starting the year with some penalty-filled performances, the unit grew into one of WSU’s strengths. Left guard Cody O’Connell went from being a first-year starter to an Outland Trophy finalist and the second unanimous All-American in school history, left tackle Andre Dillard proved to be an able fill-in for veteran starter Joe Dahl, and right tackle Cole Madison, right guard Eduardo Middleton and center Riley Sorenson all elevated their level of play. WSU gave up 29 sacks in 2016 — down from 41 in 2015.

Grade: B-


Defensive line

It was a tumultuous year for the defensive line, which missed nose tackle Robert Barber for three games in midseason when he had to sit out due to discipline actions from WSU’s conduct board, and saw defensive-line coach Joe Salave’a miss the Colorado game because he had to return to Samoa to attend his father’s funeral.

One bright spark was defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, who built upon his big freshman season (11 TFL, 7 sacks) with a respectable sophomore season (13 TFL, 5 sacks). But WSU had just 19 sacks this season after registering 33 the year before.

Grade: C+


The linebackers weathered some attrition this season, losing Isaac Dotson, Parker Henry and Dylan Hanser at various points. Overall, however, Dotson’s move to will linebacker was a success. He finished with 62 tackles, and will only get better as he learns the nuances of the position. Peyton Pelluer was, as always, a rock in the middle, and he finished with a team-high 93 tackles. The Cougars also got some good production out of newer contributors like Hanser, Frankie Luvu and Nate DeRider. But, as was the case with the defensive line, the linebackers weren’t as effective getting to the quarterback as they were in 2015, and they seem to struggle particularly against dual-threat quarterbacks such as Colorado’s Sefo Liufau.

Grade: B-

Defensive backs

Shalom Luani was again the best player in WSU’s secondary, and showed his versatility by excelling from both the nickelback and free-safety spots, finishing third on the defense with 65 tackles, including 8.5 for loss. WSU also discovered a new weapon in junior-college transfer free safety Robert Taylor (58.5 tackles). Strong safety Jalen Thompson led the secondary with seven pass breakups and was an Freshman All-American selection. But he also took some lumps, as his inexperience was exposed. Cornerback Darrien Molton was better in coverage than in his freshman season, and Marcellus Pippins rounds out a secondary that should be better next season.

Grade: B-

Special teams

Kicker Erik Powell had a rough start, missing his first five field-goal attempts, but redeemed himself by making nine of his final 10 tries to finish 9 of 15. He also showed some punting ability. The Cougars were solid on punt and kickoff return coverage this year, and scored touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in the same season for the first time since 1968.

Grade: A-