A look at five keys to Washington State’s football season.
Consistent quarterback play
Sophomore Luke Falk got a head start on redshirt freshman Peyton Bender in the race to replace Connor Halliday when he was pressed into starting action over the final three games of 2014. He has held that edge through fall camp and will likely be named the starter. Falk has learned to manage Mike Leach’s offense and his work ethic and leadership qualities have earned him his teammates’ respect. If he can play consistently at the level he performed at against Oregon State last year (471 passing yards, 5 TDs), the Cougs will be in business.
Significant improvement in pass defense
Washington State’s defense gave up 296.6 passing yards and 38.6 points per game last season, giving the Cougs the second-worst pass defense in the FBS. Youth and inexperience in the secondary was a big reason for the Cougs’ problems in 2014. Fortunately for WSU, that means that everyone returns with an extra year of seasoning. Senior safety Taylor Taliuliu leads a still-young secondary that includes junior Colton Teglovic, sophomores Darius Lemora, Sulaiman Hameed, Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White, and true freshman Darrien Molton. The youngsters need to grow up quick, or it’ll be a long year against the Pac-12’s high-scoring teams.
Force more turnovers
It’s difficult to win games when your defense forces only eight turnovers in a season. Has new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch fixed the problem? Everything we’ve seen this offseason has been encouraging. The defense came up with three interceptions in the spring game and Grinch wants his defense to shoot for at least two turnovers every game. It needs to deliver right away.
Spread the wealth
As usual, Leach has an arsenal of talented skill players at his disposal and this receiving corps is loaded. Gabe Marks, the Cougs’ leading receiver in 2013, is back after a redshirt year. Dom Williams is a proven commodity, and Biletnikoff Award watch list candidate River Cracraft is sure-handed and reliable. Then there’s Clemson transfer Kyrin Priester, who will antagonize Pac-12 defenses with his physicality and athleticism. Toss John Thompson, Dan Lilienthal and the triumvirate of talented running backs — Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington and Jamal Morrow — into the mix and Falk has no shortage of capable targets.
Get kicking game on track
Quentin Breshears’ 19-yard miss that ultimately sealed WSU’s fate against Cal last season is seared into every Coug fan’s memory. After Breshears and Erik Powell combined to go 11 of 17 on field-goal attempts in 2014, the Cougars brought in freshmen Brett Schafer and Matt Abramo to compete for the kicking job. It’s worth noting, however, that only Powell was a perfect 3 for 3 in the Cougs’ final fall scrimmage in Lewiston, Idaho.