WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
Outlook: The WSU Cougars are coming off of the season of “Woulda, coulda, shoulda”. 4-8 could’ve easily been a Bowl bid, from a loss to Utah at home in a game that a botched review may have changed to a win, to a blown 2nd half lead @ SDSU, to falling apart in the redzone at UCLA for the second year in a row. There was much optimism going into 2011, and the wins against Colorado and ASU had the fans upbeat, but it was really unsettling to see the Cougars fail again and again to get over the hump in a year when Paul Wulff said to all of Coug Nation that they could compete for a championship.
Nothing seemed to come together as starting Qb Jeff Tuel was injured in week 1 against Idaho State. It happened in a play which warranted a Qb running out of bounds but instead saw Jeff lower his shoulder and receiver a broken collarbone. He then was re-injured halfway through the year and then re-injured again. Even with that bad luck, the Cougs looked close to breaking through but just never did. An uninspired effort at Washington put the nail in the coffin. And so, though Coug fans have trouble admitting it, the optimism turned into bitterness by the end of the disappointing season and Wulff’s job was called into question.
All of that bitterness changed in record breaking time when Paul Wulff was relieved of his duties soon after the Apple Cup and a guy we now know as the Pirate of the Palouse was signed to a record WSU contract a day later. The excitement in Pullman and in the Cougar community did more than return, it went through the roof. Now it seems as if Washington State is simply poised for a breakout year. All of the tabloids say “watch out for WSU”, but are cautious when ranking the Cougs because this team has simply not shown the ability to be consistent.
Receivers Galore: This is the best situation Mike Leach could’ve fell into. The Pac’s leading receiver, Marquess Wilson, returns for his Jr season coming off of a 1,300 yard campaign and back to back 1,000 yard seasons. There is actually not all that much production returning around Wilson, but not for lack of talent. The receivers average well over 6’0 as a starting unit and have quite a bit of athleticism and speed. Included in this group is a fun piece that Leach normally doesn’t use but has been raving about, a big receiving TE in Andrei Lintz. Behind them is a group of less talented, but more experienced receivers that have a couple pieces that could potentially step on the field and impact a game. And behind them (for now at least) is a group of young talent that is highly touted but hasn’t had a chance to see the field yet. To be honest, there’s too many receivers (18 overall), even for the Mike Leach system. Expect some of these guys to become special teams regulars and/or transfer.
The Return: Last year the quarterback position was in serious limbo all season long, with the aforementioned injuries to then Jr Tuel and even more injuries to freshman Connor Halliday at the end of the season. The embattled Sr Marshall Lobbestael did a nice job filling in but did not have the play making abilities that he Cougs needed late in games. And so the return of the now Senior Tuel has been long awaited and he is healthy once again. By all accounts, he’s also picking up the Leach system seamlessly and he is the unquestioned leader of the team.
Home Advantage: It’s returning to Pullman. Season tickets are up 25% and the Cougs are in the ending stages of finishing a huge new renovation to the pressbox, adding loge boxes and other amenities, in a so far successful attempt to again fit in with the Pac-12. Martin Stadium is still going to be the smallest (in attendance) available stadium in the Pac, but between this renovation and the expected football operations facility to add next season, the Cougs may be on the brink of never being behind in the Pac again. Martin has always been one of the toughest places to play a game because of the compact nature of the stadium and the unpredictable, often cold weather. With a rocking fan base ready to support a winner once again on the Palouse, it could get difficult for opponents.
The Defense: Was once again one of the absolute worst in the Pac-12 last season. And it didn’t get any better over the summer, as the Cougs not only had their best linebacker graduate, but also their next 2 best Lb’s kicked off of the team. Even with those events, the Cougar defense looks to be more experienced and probably more formidable, if they could stay healthy. Inevitably though when you’re thin it always seems to come to the surface via injuries. In fact, it has happened the past 4 seasons for the Cougars. Chester Sua, Travis Long and a full returning D-backfield can benefit from experience, but they are changing schemes this season. Until they prove they can compete against the offenses in the Pac, there’s no sense in feeling too good about it.
The Losing Bug: It’s been far too long since a winning season in Pullman and this is the first time there’s been true excitement for a team from the community since 2004. WSU is just simply not used to winning and that’s always an issue to overcome.
Offensive Line woes: The Cougars continue to give up sacks, even into the spring practices, where even the WSU d-line looked like All American material. True, they are adjusting to the new scheme and large splits that Leach is so fond of, but they’re gonna have to figure out a way to keep Tuel healthy if this is to be the promising season that everybody thinks it can be.
Summary: Based on what I’ve just laid out, it looks as if the Cougs are poised to be the breakout team in the Pac-12. What with the Leach era beginning, a healthy returning starting Qb after a year of bad injuries, the upgraded stadium and a fan base ready to come out of hibernation and a bevy of athletic receivers in an offense made for them. But there are more things working against the Cougars than working for them. Most of them have to do with the mentality of losing, but there are other issues still at play on the field. Hopefully Washington State can pull it together and be the team that they can be. I think they will, but only time will tell.
We will continue our Pac-12 previews with our week by week game picks as we inch closer to the season. All for this week!