Each week during the Pac-12 season, we'll try to hook up with our fellow SB Nation sites across the conference. This week we visit the great state of Washington to talk WSU Football with Britton Ransford from the great SB Nation site CougCenter. We'll look at the Cougars' prolific offense, their improving defense, and why the talking heads back east are missing out.
Bruins Nation: After a couple tough years since Mike Leach's arrival in Pullman, the Cougars offense is really humming this year under the nation's leading passer and half of the conference's top 6 receivers. Was this just a matter of the players getting good at Leach's system, or did Leach need some time to bring in some players to make things work? What makes this year's offense better than last year's?
CougCenter: Behind redshirt sophomore Luke Falk, the Cougars offense has taken a step forward from last year, though they're not doing anything entirely different. The Air Raid is typically installed in about three days, so the players are familiar with the system within the first week they arrive on campus, and then it's repetitions and getting familiar with the players around you.
As with any coaching change, you want to get your own guys in the system, and they have that now. Nearly the entire offense returned from a year ago and the offensive line, in particular, has been key to the Cougars' success. As was the case with Leach's Texas Tech squads, the Cougars now have a viable rushing attack that forces defense to account for both the run and the pass, and that has opened up a lot of wrinkles.
BN: Now after noting that things have progressed for WSU in year four, it almost went over the top. You guys were one last second field goal away from beating Stanford and controlling your destiny in the Pac-12 North. Is it a surprise that things have come so far, so quickly, and coming from a program here that can't seem to get close to Stanford, what about WSU made the Cougars such a close match with the Cardinal this year?
It's not so much a surprise that the program has come so far, so quickly, because it hasn't been that quick at all. Leach took over one of the worst programs in the country and got them into their first bowl game in over a decade in 2013 — his second season at the helm — but took a big step back in year three, winning just three games in what was a miserable season.
It's certainly a little bit of a surprise to see how they have rebounded following their season-opening loss to Portland State, an FCS opponent. The strides they've made since that game have been steady, but I don't think they've played their best football yet.
As for the Stanford game, the Cougars, under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, played their best game on defense in the loss. They owned the line of scrimmage against a massive Cardinal front, looked to be the better-prepared team and flew around to the football, but couldn't convert their scoring opportunities, which ended up being the difference in the game.
BN: With Leach's teams, defense has seemingly always taken a back seat to the prolific offenses, and that was no exception the last three years, but the Cougars defense has improved significantly this year. What are the weaknesses of the WSU defense and what will defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's squad need to shore up to face a good, balanced rushing and passing attack by UCLA?
Leach has never been one to dismiss defense or not put as much of an emphasis on that side of the ball, however the huge numbers on offense will certainly shine the brightest when talking about the Washington State football team. However, Alex Grinch, the former Missouri safeties coach, has come in and immediately changed that perception, at least from an insider's perspective.
Grinch and the Washington State defensive coaching staff exude a ton of energy and you can see it on the field come Saturdays. They're not the biggest or fastest defense, but they play pretty well together and have done a lot of good things this year in what has been the best defensive effort on the Palouse in recent memory.
The Cougars are second in the conference in pass defense behind UCLA, a year removed from finishing the season with the second-worst pass defense. They added big-hitting safety Shalom Luani from the junior college ranks to shore up the back end and the cornerbacks, while still young, have an extra year of experience. They've limited the big play, for the most part, which has a lot to do with their above-average ability to get after the quarterback in the front seven.
While the Cougars boast a pair of linebackers in the middle — redshirt sophomore Peyton Pelluer and senior Jeremiah Allison — that have been solid against the rush, the two leading tacklers have been a bright spot in what has otherwise been a struggle against the rush. Washington State is allowing 206 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 11th in the conference, so that's a matchup the Bruins will be heavily favored and an area the Cougars will have to quickly shore up Saturday night.
BN: In our preseason Q&A, you guys were predicting a 6-6 season with a chance for better if things developed the right way. Now, you are 6-3 with UCLA, Colorado and UW left on the schedule, plus a bowl game after that. How far can this team go and how gratifying is this season that looks to be finishing well ahead of schedule and expectations for the program?
After making Mike Leach the highest-paid coach, by far, in program history, dropping $120 million on state-of-the-art facilities and a new press box and now in the midst of year four, this was always the expectation, so I wouldn't say they're ahead of schedule. You always want things to move quicker than they do, and a lot of people — the coaching staff and athletic heads included —probably wanted this thing to get moving like this last year, but here we are.
This is a good football team that's getting better as we get deeper in the season. They're learning how to win, which is evident in their three come-from-behind victories thus far, and I think their best football is in front of them. Now, they have a tough matchup on the road against a nationally ranked UCLA team that will present a huge test, but there's no sense from anyone around the program that it's a game they can't win. A 9- or 10-win season wouldn't be a surprise at this rate, and for some, it's expected.
BN: I'm not blatantly suggesting the media ignores the West Coast (OK, actually, I am, because they do), but if Luke Falk played for an amazingly great and blessed team like, oh, say, Notre Dame or Alabama or Ohio State, would ESPN have already awarded him the Heisman Trophy?
That's really an impossible question to answer. I do believe, however, that if Washington State comes out on the winning end of their three losses this year, which came by a total of 15 points, Falk is getting some Heisman mention right now, but it's always hard to win over voters in this style of offense.
Although, if this offense continues to progress like it's expected to, with nearly everyone returning, there will be some chatter heading into next season. Especially since, historically speaking, as a redshirt sophomore he's on pace to put up one of the best statistical season for a quarterback at the collegiate level. At his current pace, Falk will set the NCAA record for attempts (726) and completions (512) while finishing with the second-most touchdowns (48), third-most passing yards (5,396), third-best completion percentage (70.2) and second-fewest interceptions (10) for a Leach quarterback.
Our thanks again to Britton for his time and insight into the Cougars football team. For all the best news and analysis on WSU sports, check out the great CougCenter, and you can follow their site on twitter at @CougCenter.