Washington State football players are no dummies. Teams coached by Mike Leach have a history of success on the field and in the classroom, and this year's Cougars are no exceptions.
Three months ago, it was difficult to fathom that success was imminent on the field. The Cougars face-planted in their opening game, losing to lightly regarded (and vastly underestimated, as it turned out) Portland State.
The loss dropped Leach's four-year record at WSU to 12-26. The villagers were ready to chase Leach with torches and set fire to the $2.75-million annual contract that makes him the highest-paid state employee in Washington. Twelve years removed from a winning season had made Wazzu fans just a bit testy.
Now, all is well on the Palouse. The Cougars are 8-3 overall, 6-2 in the Pac-12 Conference, ranked 20th in the nation and headed for a bowl game after the Black Friday regular-season finale at Washington (12:30 p.m., FOX). The young, rebuilding Huskies (5-6, 3-5) need a win to become bowl-eligible. The contest got even more interesting this week with news that quarterback Luke Falk, who took a nasty blow to the head when we was swung down to the turf on Saturday night, could possibly miss the game.
But that said, how did the Cougars go from 3-9 to (potentially) 9-3 in the span of a year? There is no simple answer, but the seeds of success were planted long before the opening kickoff.
"It all starts with the attitude," running back Gerard Wicks said during fall camp. "This year, the team attitude has totally changed."
"Totally different feel," wide receiver Gabe Marks agreed. "The energy is so much higher."
Translation: The 2014 Cougars were not prone to gathering around postgame campfires to share cocoa and s'mores.
"I think that's the biggest thing that was missing last year — not a real tight locker room," quarterback Luke Falk says. "We've got it this year."
WSU players credit Falk for boosting camaraderie by organizing off-season team functions. Teammates became friends, and friends go to great lengths to support one another.
As Peyton Pelluer puts it, speaking in the delicate manner befitting the linebacker he is: "We'll punch you in the mouth, and we'll outplay you."
WSU's pass-happy offense is explosive, the defense opportunistic, the special teams much improved. The Cougars have become masters of the fourth-quarter comeback.
"This ball club is resilient, it's focused and it really has taken on the entire personality of our head coach," athletic director Bill Moos says. "We've been waiting for this."