A preview? With the Washington State Cougars having played their first game of the season, what follows is more of an educated guess than a preview. With the first game out of the way, a 41-38 loss to Rutgers, perhaps we’ve gotten a taste of how WSU will perform this season compared to last. Can the Cougars iron out the wrinkles for the rest of the season, and return to another bowl game?
Don’t kid yourself, this was Connor Halliday’s team last season. The junior threw 714 passes, completing a phenomenal 449 for 4597 yards and 34 TDS, although he threw 22 interceptions. There was no backup plan – as Halliday went, so went the Cougar offense. That may not change this season as it looked like more of the same for Washington State. Against the Scarlet Knights, Halliday was outstanding, completing 40 of 56 attempts, racking up 532 yards and five TDs, with an early interception. Let it be noted that Rutgers’ pass defense was abysmal last season.
Halliday doesn’t have to do it all himself, as he wouldn’t get far without some good receivers. Gabe Marks led the team in receiving last season with 74 receptions, 807 yards and seven scores, but he missed the Rutgers game with injury. Vince Mayle caught 42 passes for 537 yards and seven TDs last season, and got off to a hot start this year with 12 catches for 124 yards and a score. River Cracraft, who caught 46 passes for 614 yards and three TDs as a freshman, snagged eight for 83 yards and a score against the Knights. Another starter, Kristoff Williams (in place of Marks), only caught two for 36 yards, but had 51 receptions for 490 yards in 2013. Finally Rickey Galvin, who caught 39 passes for 311 yards and four TDs last season, added four for 86 yards and a score in week 1.
Running back was big problem last season, although not necessarily all their own doing. Last season’s leading rusher, Marcus Mason (429 yards, two TDs), wasn’t even on the depth chart after some injury problems in camp. Instead, a pair of freshmen, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, combined for 24 yards on eight carries in week 1. Assuming Mason’s injury isn’t serious (Mike Leach tends to keep mum on injuries), expect to see him sooner rather than later, as he adds a receiving dimension to go with his decent running skills.
The offensive line was a concern going into the season, and that doesn’t look to have changed. The left side of the line, Joe Dahl at tackle and Gunnar Eklund at guard, played the opposite position last season, switching for the bowl game and keeping their new positions ever since. The rest of the group they lead is inexperienced. Center Riley Sorenson played in three games as a freshman last season, while right guard Eduardo Middleton played in one. The new right tackle, Cole Madison, is a redshirt freshman. The group is young now, but could be good by the end of the season. They gave up three sacks and six tackles for loss to Rutgers.
After a bright start to the season, the Cougar defense was absolutely gutted in conference play, with WSU vulnerable to both run and pass. The defensive line was a contributor to this downfall, allowing 187 yards rushing per game, and managing just 21 sacks. Xavier Cooper is the top returning starter, making 50 tackles, 13½ for loss, with five sacks. He opened this season with 4 tackles, 1½ for loss and ½ a sack. Opposite him is Destiny Vaeao, who had 24 tackles, 3½ for loss, but just 1 tackle against the Knights. In the middle is Kalafitoni Pole (28 tackles, 4 for loss, 2 sacks), who also registered a single tackle.This is a relatively experienced unit, but they need to play the run better (Cooper excepted), and they that was not on show on Thursday night.
The linebackers return three starters, and one who took over late in the season. Middle linebacker Darryl Monroe is the top returning tackler (94 tackles, eight for loss), and a leader on the defense. He finished with seven tackles and broke up a pass against Rutgers. Cyrus Coen had 61 tackles, 6½ for loss from the strongside, while Tana Pritchard made 56 tackles, 4½ for loss from the weakside last year. Pritchard had five tackles and an interception against Rutgers. Coen was injured for the game, but Mitch Peterson took his place and racked up an impressive 16 tackles, but too many were downfield. The “Buck” linebacker, Kache Palacio, had four sacks and four hurries in his pass rushing role last year, but was quiet against the Scarlet Knights.
The secondary returns one starter, and the replacements are very inexperienced, which showed against Rutgers. The exception is cornerback, Daquawn Brown, who was a freshman all-American last year. He made 50 tackles, broke up five passes and intercepted two more. The sole returning starter is free safety Taylor Taliulu, who made 54 tackles last season (six against Rutgers), but needs to improve against the pass. Strong safety Darius Lemora is a redshirt freshman, while the other corner is Tracy Clark, who has played in 20 games over his career (he’s a senior), but mostly on special teams. The two combined for 11 tackles in game one.
The Cougars lost a rock-solid kicker in Andrew Furney, and replaced him with unpredictable freshman Erik Powell. Powell hit a 22-yard kick against Rutgers, barely missed a 50-yard effort and showed a good leg on kickoffs. Another freshman, Jordan Dascalo punted twice, with a 53 long, and avoided a blocked punt on his shorter kick. New kick returner Kristoff Williams averaged 22.1 yard on seven kick returns, but punt returner River Cracraft whiffed on a punt in the fourth quarter, setting up a TD for the Knights. The coverage units were good last season, and didn’t have any meltdowns on Thursday night.
Well, 0-1 is the starting point, and based on the Rutgers game it doesn’t look like the Cougars have improved at all this season, with the exception of Halliday. Still, the rest of the non-league slate is a littler easier (in theory), with a trip to down-on-their-luck Nevada and FCS squad Portland State (and their prolific offense). The conference schedule includes trips to Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona State, while Arizona, USC and Washington have to come to Pullman. It’s too early in the season for doom and gloom, as the team has room for improvement, and the passing attack will keep them in games they shouldn’t necessarily be in, but the defense is a worry. It’s an uphill battle for the Cougars just to make a bowl, and they’ll need a couple of upsets to do it.
*Section Photo credit to Boyd Ivey, Icon SMI; Featured Photo (above) credit to Braden Gall, Athlon Sports