WSU began the season a disappointing 1-2. Here's a look at how the Cougs graded out through the first quarter of the season.
This might come as a surprise given Washington State’s 1-2 record through the first quarter of the season, but statistically speaking, this year’s Cougs have put up bigger numbers than the 2015 team at this same point last year.
The biggest difference, of course, lies in win-loss record. In 2015, the Cougars started out 2-1, and looked to be on the upswing by the time they hit their bye week in late September.
This season, the Cougars lost two-straight before finally rebounding against a bad Idaho team to notch their first win of the year. The situation was compounded by the fact that said win came at the end of a tumultuous week in which WSU made more headlines for brushes with the law than for football accolades.
Still, the season begins anew next week as WSU opens Pac-12 play on Oct. 1 with a huge home contest against an Oregon team that will be looking to avenge last year’s overtime defeat in Eugene.
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Based on how erratic the Cougs have been this year, there’s about an equal chance that they could catch fire and blaze through their Pac-12 slate, or meander their way through the season looking as shell-shocked as they did in in the season opener against Eastern Washington.
Either way, how WSU comes out of its bye week could be the telling indication of how the rest of the season might unfold.
Based on how well Luke Falk finished out his sophomore campaign (38 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 69.5 completion percentage, 380 pass yards per game) you would be forgiven for having forgotten how he started out the year. The answer: Slowly.
That’s how this season appears to be going too. Falk is No. 3 nationally with a 74.1 completion percentage, has thrown 11 touchdowns to three picks, and is averaging 374.7 yards per game. All those numbers are comparable to his stats through this same juncture last year. However, you could also say that, as was the case early last season, it would be nice to see him stretch the field vertically with more consistency, and get rid of the ball more quickly so as to avoid unnecessary sacks.
As expected, Gabe Marks leads WSU’s receivers with four of the team’s 11 receiving touchdowns, and is averaging 80.7 yards per game. But there have also been spans during the first three games where teams have taken Marks out of the equation and dared WSU to find different ways to get the passing game going. The Cougars have had mixed results in that department. The running backs have been productive in the short game, with Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks combining for three touchdown receptions. Inside receiver Kyle Sweet is also a bright spark. He’s come up with some clutch long gains for the Cougs, and looks to be developing nicely in his second season. Tavares Martin has flashed potential across the field from Marks, but the Cougars need someone to step up into the role Dom Williams played – a consistent deep threat who can stretch the field vertically.
The efficiency of the running game has been one of the bright spots in what’s been a disappointing non-conference performance for WSU. This is the most balanced offense WSU has had in Mike Leach’s tenure. The Cougs are averaging 121.7 rush yards per game behind Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks, and the three backs have been instrumental in the passing game as well, picking up short, crucial yardage whenever Falk has had to check down. The running backs have combined to account for eight of the Cougars’ 16 touchdowns, and oh by the way, they’re not afraid to throw blocks either.
Aside from the disturbing rash of penalties they’ve incurred – most of which came in Cougs’ rough first game against EWU – the offensive line has been pretty dependable. The line has opened up some nice running lanes for the backs, and was a big factor in the Leach era record-241 rushing yards the Cougs generated against Idaho. For the most part, the line has stood up to defenses and created strong pockets for Falk to sit in. They’ve bought him a lot of time and can’t be blamed for some of the six sacks he’s taken.
The Cougs are missing the aggressive pass rush they had last season thanks to the departures of Destiny Vaeao and Darryl Paulo. Hercules Mata’afa and Robert Barber each have one sack through the first three games of the year, while Mata’afa and backup defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo have also notched a quarterback hurry each. Off the field issues aside, nose tackle Barber has been consistent as the Cougs’ big man in the middle, and he was also responsible for the field goal block that Marcellus Pippins turned into a touchdown return against Idaho. But overall, the Cougars need to get more from this group as they open Pac-12 play.
This time last season, co-starting rush linebackers Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio had combined to produce six sacks and eight tackles for loss. That’s the sort of production the Cougars are missing this year. The linebackers started the year on a sour note, with a stockpile of missed tackles against EWU. They rebounded in the Boise State game, and were steadier against Idaho. Peyton Pelluer has been a stable force for the defense, and leads WSU with 23 total tackles. But again, WSU needs this group to combine with the defensive line and generate a more effective pass rush.
The defensive backs were horrible in the first game, but have since settled down and grown progressively over Games 2 and 3. You can’t understate the impact free safety Shalom Luani has on this defense. He’s a versatile athlete who has showed that he’s invaluable in the secondary for his leadership, his ball-hawking abilities and big hits. His return against Boise State helped stabilize a young secondary that was painfully exposed against EWU, and since then the defensive backs have more closely resembled the talented-but-young group they were billed as in the preseason. They have already doubled the number of interceptions they had three the first quarter of last season.
Take out Erik Powell’s 0-for-3 performance on field goals, and special teams might be WSU’s most improved unit this season. Kickoff and punt coverage has been significantly better – WSU is allowing an average of -1.5 yards per punt return – with players in good positions to make tackles, and opposing returners looking less likely to take one to the house. Between Kyle Sweet and Zach Charme, the Cougs have the ability to punt in two very different ways depending on the situation, and aside for a couple of shaky rugby punts by Sweet early on, the punt game hasn’t put WSU in any bad positions. Plus, you have to look all the way back to 1973 to find the last time the Cougs scored two touchdowns in a game the way they did against Idaho. Now, if only they could convert some field goals.