WSU has yet to win a season opener in the Mike Leach era. The Cougars hope to end that streak on Saturday, when Eastern Washington comes to Martin Stadium
Last season was one of milestones for Mike Leach’s football program at Washington State.
The Cougars beat Oregon for the first time in nine seasons, secured their first bowl win in 12 years, and finished with a winning record for the first time this decade.
But all those successes aside, there’s one disturbing streak the Cougars haven’t managed to snap since Leach arrived at WSU.
WSU has not won its season opener since 2011, the final year of the Paul Wulff era when the Cougars beat Idaho State 64-21 to kick off what ultimately ended as a 4-8 season.
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Since then, WSU has struggled out the gate four years running. The Cougs lost 60-6 on the road against BYU in their 2012 season opener and dropped a 31-24 decision at Auburn in 2013. The 2014 season brought a 41-38 loss to Rutgers in Seattle, and last year’s magical season began on a rough note, with a surprising 24-17 defeat to Portland State at Martin Stadium.
When Eastern Washington comes to town this Saturday, the Cougars have a chance to snap their four-year opening day losing streak and start this season the way they ended last year: focused, hungry and with something to prove.
Season openers can be tough on teams because of an influx of new players, coaching staff changes, or tweaks in strategy over the offseason. Teams aren’t sure what to expect from the other.
“We try to put together good practice and good work, but it can be unpredictable,” Leach said. “You just try to practice and prepare with as much energy as you can, and there’ll be ups and downs during the game you try to deal with too.”
EWU, which finished 6-5 overall last season and failed to make the FCS playoffs, has an entirely new offensive line and will open the year with uncertainty at quarterback. Sophomore Gage Gubrud is expected to start at quarterback, but the Eagles have hinted that senior Jordan West or sophomore Reilly Hennessey could also play. It helps that EWU returns with riches at wide receiver, including former freshman All-American Shaq Hill and the record-breaking Cooper Kupp.
Meanwhile the Cougars will field a retooled defensive front seven featuring four new starters, and a young defensive backfield that will likely be without veteran free safety Shalom Luani. Luani has been held out of practice since last Wednesday, when he was arrested and charged with assault after allegedly punching a WSU student.
Leach and WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch declined to comment this week on Luani’s status for the EWU game, but it’s probable that the Cougs will start either converted cornerback Charleston White or sophomore Hunter Dale at Luani’s regular spot.
True freshman strong safety Jalen Thompson will be making his first career start for WSU. Thompson has progressed rapidly since he first joined the team in January and Grinch likened his development to that of left cornerback Darrien Molton last year. Molton started for the Cougs as a true freshman and will reprise his starting role this season.
“From a competitive standpoint, Jalen didn’t shy away from the competition as a young guy,” Grinch said. “He came in and started winter workouts with us and we saw him as a guy who competed his tail off.
“Fairly quickly, we knew he’d be a guy who would make an impact on defense. But he is having his first collegiate start on Saturday, and I have to continue reminding myself that he’s only a freshman.”
Thompson and the Cougars’ defensive backs will have their hands full trying to slow down Kupp, but the Cougs’ offense should pick up right where it left off last season, when quarterback Luke Falk led the nation in passing average (380.5 yards per game) and set WSU single season records for touchdown passes (38) and completion percentage (69.5).
Falk, a junior, wasn’t even on the team in 2012, the last time WSU faced the Eagles. The Cougars won that day, 24-20, and they hold a 3-0 all-time head-to-head record against EWU.
If last season’s defeat to Portland State taught them anything, the Cougs won’t take this Eagles team lightly. But they’re also determined to maintain an even keel going into the game. Some coaches might have used the Portland State loss as bulletin board material to pump up their team this week, but that’s not Leach’s style.
Leach said he would not bring up last season’s loss to the Vikings at all this week.
Instead, his marching orders to his team are simple: “Just come out as prepared and focused and play together the best we can.”