I n the final minutes of the Cougars' 2015 season, it was the defense that made the final push in the snowy Sun Bowl to bring WSU its first bowl victory since 2003. The team rode into the offseason with a 9-4 record and murmurs of an even better season to come.
That season is here, and people are expecting big things.
Led by redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk — it's hard to believe he began his career in 2013 as a walk-on — the Cougars have maintained their air-raid, pass-first offense that is close to religion for head coach Mike Leach. With two new starters protecting Falk's blind side, the offensive line that led the FBS in sacks allowed will be a weak spot, but the weapons Falk has downfield are familiar faces.
Falk will have redshirt senior wide receiver Gabe Marks, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award last season who has again been named to the award's watch list, and senior River Cracraft, who logged 5.3 receptions per game, totaling 615 yards and four touchdowns, despite missing three games late in the season. Cracraft is a reliable third-down weapon. Marks' production and chemistry with Falk make the duo a threat.
Marks came back to WSU for his senior season to finish his sociology degree, and also to help the team build on the foundation it established last season, when the Cougars were ranked in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since 2006.
"We've always worked. It's just, I think we've gotta make sure we handle the success the right way," Marks said in an interview with the Seattle Times. "We've gotta make sure we don't lose sight of what got us to this point. We've got to play with that chippiness that got us to where we were last year."
Falk has been quick to pick up the mantle of leadership. After the final scrimmage started in lackluster fashion, he said it fell on him to recognize where the team was mentally and change it.
Leach also shouldered the blame for the less-than-satisfactory scrimmage, concurring with Marks' point regarding the team's ego.
"The first offense thinks they're a little too good, which they're not," Leach said after a recent practice. "We thought we could get our work done in 20 plays and it took 66 plays. You might think it takes 20 plays to get your work done, but it actually sometimes takes 66. Today it took 66. So we are about a third as good as we think we are."
Second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's unit is coming off an upswing, but with the loss of Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao from the defensive line, the depth up front will be tested. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Hercules Mata'afa was a force to be reckoned with in his first season, playing in all 13 games and totaling seven sacks and 32 tackles, 11 for loss.
Linebacker Peyton Pelluer, a redshirt junior, returns after earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season. He led WSU in tackles and is poised to do the same this season.
Senior safety Shalom Luani made headlines last week after he was arrested and charged for allegedly breaking a WSU student's nose outside Domino's on Pullman's College Hill. Leach claimed that Luani may have actually been the victim of the assault, but Luani was nevertheless absent from practices. Luani intercepted four passes last season and was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
Luani's arrest comes on the heels of an assault — one WSU student suffered a severely broken jaw, another a head wound and concussion — in a brawl at a party in July that was rumored to have involved a number of Cougar football players. That investigation, which the Inlander covered in its Aug. 18 issue, is ongoing as of press time.
This season the Cougars will play Stanford (No. 8 in the AP preseason Top 25 poll), No. 14 Washington, No. 16 UCLA, No. 20 USC, No. 24 Oregon and Boise State, which received 49 votes to WSU's 68 in the AP poll.
It's not lost on this team that it's been more than a decade since they've received votes in an AP preseason poll, and that Sports Illustrated ranked the Cougars 18th in their college football preview. But as Marks indicates, they have to prove it on the field. ♦
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
LAST SEASON'S RECORD: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12)
PREASEASON COACHES POLL: unranked (29th in AP preseason Top 25 poll)
NOTABLE RETURNING PLAYERS: WR Gabe Marks, QB Luke Falk, LB Peyton Pelluer
NOTABLE NEWCOMERS: RB James Williams, WR Isaiah Johnson-Mack, S Jalen Thompson
HEAD COACH: Mike Leach (5th season: 21-29 overall, 13-23 in Pac-12)
SEASON OPENER: vs. Eastern Washington, Sat, Sept. 3, 5 pm, Pac-12 Network