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1. Fully Leachian
His quarterback is now in his third year in the system. His top eight targets are back. Former Texas Tech assistants and quarterbacks litter the coaching roster, even more than before (hello, Graham Harrell). He's signed three recruiting classes.
There are still quite a few Paul Wulff leftovers, and it takes more than three recruiting classes to set the culture of the program the way you want it. But it's safe to say that, after a couple of years of tweaking and a surge from three wins to six in Year 2, Washington State is getting close to becoming Fully Leachian, for better and occasionally worse.
We saw all of the ups and downs of Mike Leach's coaching style during a downright silly 2013 season. Wazzu ...
- beat USC in L.A., beat Arizona in Tucson, and damn near beat Auburn on the Plains in the season opener.
- scored at least 38 points six times.
- allowed at least 37 points six times (and allowed at least 52 four times in a five-game midseason stretch).
- beat three teams ranked 31st or better in the F/+ rankings.
- lost to No. 42 Oregon State at home and No. 66 Colorado State via last-second drama in the New Mexico Bowl.
Not a lot about Wazzu's 2013 season made sense, but after a decade in the wilderness, Leach brought Wazzu back to a bowl game. He'll have to fight to do the same in 2014 thanks to an increasingly tough Pac-12, but one should probably never bet on a Leach team, good or bad. Just sit back and watch.
2. Keeping up with the Pac-12
In the above chart, Wazzu's 2013 surge is almost overshadowed by the dotted line above it. The average F/+ rating in the Pac-12 in 2013 was plus-16.2 percent, which means the average Pac-12 team was 16.2 percent better than the national average. (SEC: plus-15.4 percent.) Six conference teams ranked among the F/+ top 18, and only two ranked worse than 53rd.
Both Colorado and Washington State underwent stark, noteworthy improvement last fall, but thanks to similar surges from teams like Washington, Arizona State, and UCLA and the sustained elite play of Stanford and Oregon, the Cougars and Buffaloes barely made up ground, going 5-13 in conference play.
The Pac-12 in its current state shows us the power of increased money and strong hires. When your conference has a lot of both, your conference gets stronger. And while Wazzu could very well improve again in 2014, the Cougs play only one team projected worse than 45th after September 13. They'll pretty much have to improve just to stand still at six wins.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 53|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||at Auburn||4||24-31||L||27.2 - 21.9||W|
|7-Sep||at USC||11||10-7||W||15.5 - 10.9||W|
|14-Sep||Southern Utah||N/A||48-10||W||32.8 - 18.1||W|
|21-Sep||Idaho||116||42-0||W||34.6 - 13.2||W|
|28-Sep||vs. Stanford||3||17-55||L||26.5 - 40.6||L||6.4|
|5-Oct||at California||103||44-22||W||22.6 - 34.8||L||2.9|
|12-Oct||Oregon State||42||24-52||L||23.3 - 37.3||L||-0.8|
|19-Oct||at Oregon||5||38-62||L||38.0 - 37.3||W||-3.6|
|31-Oct||Arizona State||13||21-55||L||22.1 - 35.8||L||-10.7|
|16-Nov||at Arizona||25||24-17||W||31.2 - 19.8||W||-5.6|
|23-Nov||Utah||31||49-37||W||42.1 - 31.1||W||-0.9|
|29-Nov||at Washington||18||17-27||L||24.1 - 23.0||W||2.1|
|21-Dec||vs. Colorado State||66||45-48||L||27.1 - 30.0||L||1.4|
|Points Per Game||31.0||51||32.5||96|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.2||69||27.2||61|
3. A WTF October
Granted, timing inflated Wazzu's 2013 ratings a bit. The Auburn offense of August 31 was not the Auburn offense of December 7. The USC offense (if that's what you want to call it) of September 7 was not the less shackled version of November. The Cougars held these two teams to 38 total points and 4.6 yards per play, and that probably wouldn't have happened had the schedule order been reversed.
Still, the Wazzu defense of the first four and last three games of the regular season was consistently above average, a unit with no profound strengths but no pronounced weaknesses. And the Wazzu defense of Games 5-9 was as bad as anything produced during the Paul Wulff era.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Wazzu 27.5, Opponent 16.0 (plus-11.5)
- Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 37.2, Wazzu 26.5 (minus-10.7)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Wazzu 31.1, Opponent 26.0 (plus-5.1)
During that wretched five-game stretch, WSU allowed 604 yards per game, 7.5 yards per play, and 49.2 points per game. Yes, four of the five offenses in that span were explosive and scary. But damn.
There were no specific injuries, no specific changes to personnel. WSU's defense just stunk in October. And then the Cougs held Arizona to 17 points and 4.8 yards per play in a road upset that, when paired with a home win over Utah, made them bowl eligible.
The offense, rather average through most of the season, picked up the pace late in the season, too. If we chalk up September to timing, the big question for 2014 becomes, which was more indicative of Wazzu moving forward: the doldrums of October or the saltiness of November?
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||41.5%||74||Succ. Rt. +||108.6||32|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.4||80||Def. FP+||97.4||84|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||61||Redzone S&P+||114.9||19|
|Q1 Rk||52||1st Down Rk||73|
|Q2 Rk||23||2nd Down Rk||64|
|Q3 Rk||55||3rd Down Rk||21|
4. The Pirate's Navy
It's an efficiency-based offense with minimal big plays, nearly socialist ball distribution, and tremendous red-zone execution. That's a sentence you could write about either Navy or Washington State.
Navy ran the ball 86 percent of the time on standard downs, and Wazzu passed the ball 85 percent of the time on passing downs, and the effect was rather similar. If you're looking for things to love about college football, that's a big one. There are thousands of ways to move a football.
In 2013, 14 Wazzu players had at least 10 intended touches (targets plus carries). Fourteen Navy players had the same. Navy fullbacks averaged about 19 intended touches per game; WSU tailbacks averaged about 23. Navy slotbacks averaged about 18; Wazzu slot receivers averaged about 19.
There were obviously different methods for delivering the ball (WSU running backs were targeted by 131 passes, Navy fullbacks seven), and touches for quarterbacks and wideouts varied dramatically, as one would expect (QB: Navy 23 per game, WSU two; WR: WSU 27, Navy five). But aside from spacing, the pre-snap alignment for these two offenses wasn't drastically different, and each offense strived to peck and poke away at a defense, hoping to turn a short delivery into a long success.
And adjusting for run-pass ratios (since runs are less likely to end in a stopped clock), Navy actually operated at a higher tempo.
College football is neat.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Connor Halliday||6'4, 197||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||449||714||4597||34||22||62.9%||31||4.2%||5.9|
|Luke Falk||6'4, 206||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Peyton Bender||6'1, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Marcus Mason||RB||5'9, 192||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||87||429||2||4.9||3.6||43.7%|
|Teondray Caldwell||RB||5'9, 202||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||50||271||1||5.4||3.7||48.0%|
|Connor Halliday||QB||6'4, 197||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||19||60||0||3.2||2.4||26.3%|
|Theron West||RB||5'7, 171||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||4||18||0||4.5||1.3||50.0%|
|Jamal Morrow||RB||5'8, 187||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Gerard Wicks||RB||5'11, 204||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Calvin Green||RB||5'10, 165||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Gabe Marks||WR-Z||6'0, 179||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||118||74||820||62.7%||16.3%||67.8%||6.9||-88||7.2||89.6|
|Dom Williams||WR-X||6'2, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||80||40||647||50.0%||11.1%||47.1%||8.1||92||8.3||70.7|
|River Cracraft||WR-Y||6'0, 197||So.||3 stars (5.5)||74||46||614||62.2%||10.2%||55.4%||8.3||47||7.8||67.1|
|Kristoff Williams||WR-Y||6'2, 214||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||72||51||490||70.8%||10.0%||65.1%||6.8||-99||7.6||53.5|
|Marcus Mason||RB||5'9, 192||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||66||52||390||78.8%||9.1%||71.2%||5.9||-182||6.6||42.6|
|Vince Mayle||WR-X||6'3, 219||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||66||42||539||63.6%||9.1%||69.8%||8.2||27||8.7||58.9|
|Isiah Myers||WR-Z||6'0, 183||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||63||37||425||58.7%||8.7%||50.0%||6.7||-45||6.8||46.4|
|Rickey Galvin||WR-H||5'8, 171||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||57||39||311||68.4%||7.9%||57.8%||5.5||-147||6.0||34.0|
|Teondray Caldwell||RB||5'9, 202||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||33||26||130||78.8%||4.6%||55.6%||3.9||-156||4.3||14.2|
|Brett Bartolone||WR||5'10, 186||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||18||10||53||55.6%||2.5%||70.6%||2.9||-78||3.1||5.8|
|Theron West||RB||5'7, 171||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||7||3||50||42.9%||1.0%||60.0%||7.1||4||9.6||5.5|
|John Thompson||WR||5'7, 189||So.||2 stars (5.3)||3||2||6||66.7%||0.4%||100.0%||2.0||-18||1.7||0.7|
|Drew Loftus||WR-Z||6'2, 197||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Keith Harrington||WR||5'9, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Barry Ware||WR||6'3, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
5. So much experience, so much ball distribution
Connor Halliday probably isn't much of an option quarterback, but he turned into a pretty good air raid signal caller in 2013. He still had his Heroball moments (a problem in 2012), his completion rate was still a bit too low, and his interception and sack rates were still too high. But they all improved dramatically last fall.
Halliday attempted a patently absurd 745 passes (including sacks), and unlike 2012, the job was all his. Barring injury, it should be again*, and he'll have one of the deepest, most experienced skill position units in the country at his disposal. Granted, there aren't actually many stars in this bunch (only three players averaged better than 7.1 yards per target, and none averaged better than 8.3), but there are options. The top two running backs return, as do the top seven receivers. Of the 11 players targeted by at least 14 passes in 2013, 10 are back. This offense will know its collective role far better than its two Leach predecessors.
Of course, there's still room for improvement. Z-receivers Gabe Marks and Isiah Myers combined to average just 11.2 yards per catch 6.9 yards per target, and while the inside receivers (WR-Y and WR-H) combined for a lovely 67 percent catch rate, they barely, if ever, broke any long gains (10.2 yards per catch). Meanwhile, the running backs were some of the least-explosive in the country, averaging 5.0 yards per carry (but almost never gaining more than 10) and 4.7 yards per target. Experience and chemistry go a long way in such a timing-based offense. But big-play ability still dominates, and Wazzu had very little of it last year.
* The backup quarterback situation got cloudier over the weekend, when four-star redshirt freshman Tyler Bruggman, Leach's first big get at WSU, evidently decided to transfer. Last year's second-stringer, Austin Apodaca, also transferred, which means that the top two options appear to be redshirt freshman Luke Falk and incoming freshman Peyton Bender. So uh, don't get hurt, Connor.
|Gunnar Eklund||LG||6'7, 310||Jr.||NR||20|
|Joe Dahl||LT||6'4, 307||Jr.||NR||13|
|Jacob Seydel||RG||6'6, 298||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Devonte McClain||LT||6'5, 307||Jr.||NR||0|
|Riley Sorenson||RG||6'4, 315||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Eduardo Middleton||RG||6'5, 319||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Sam Flor||C||6'4, 307||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Cody O'Connell||RG||6'8, 345||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Carlos Freeman||LG||6'3, 315||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Cole Madison||RT||6'5, 294||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|B.J. Salmonson||RT||6'4, 279||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Sean Krepsz||LG||6'5, 324||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
6. Starting over up front
Part of the draw of an air raid-style system is that it takes some pressure off of the offensive line. It's a lot easier to find one good quarterback than it is to find five good linemen. With with wide splits and quick passing, the line doesn't have to do quite as much work as it would in other systems.
That said, line play still matters. Leach inherited a reasonably experienced line in 2012, and it ranked 124th in Adj. Line Yards and 93rd in Adj. Sack Rate. A lack of skill position quality and experience contributed to that, but a lot of it was on the line.
In 2013, the rankings improved to 30th in Adj. Line Yards and 40th in Adj. Sack Rate. Continuity is a good thing; WSU had it last year but very much does not have it in 2014. Four of six players with starting experience are gone, leaving two starters (guard Gunar Eklund and tackle Joe Dahl), 33 career starts, and minimal experience elsewhere.
Halliday will have to be on the same page with his receivers, because he might not have as much time to throw.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.5%||91||Succ. Rt. +||100.0||52|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.1||69||Off. FP+||101.5||44|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||67||Redzone S&P+||107.6||35|
|Q1 Rk||58||1st Down Rk||69|
|Q2 Rk||53||2nd Down Rk||36|
|Q3 Rk||44||3rd Down Rk||34|
7. The box-o'-chocolates defense
Washington State allowed 139 rushing yards to USC and 383 to Oregon, 134 to Utah and 282 to Arizona State. The Cougs allowed 153 combined passing yards to Auburn and USC and 506 to California, 181 to Washington and 369 to Colorado State. Good, then horrendous, then solid.
To some degree this makes sense. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske brought a volatile, aggressive 3-4 defense to Pullman in 2012, and he didn't have all the pieces to craft a consistent unit. He dialed back the aggressiveness a bit (WSU fell from 92 tackles for loss in 2012 to 76 in 2013), and it helped in terms of passing-downs success and big-play prevention.
It also helped to improve WSU's overall Def. F/+ ranking from 76th to 54th. But it was still volatile, and with a bit of a rebuild in the secondary, it will likely be so again in 2014.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Xavier Cooper||DT||6'4, 298||Jr.||NR||13||42.0||5.3%||13.5||5.0||0||0||2||1|
|Kalafitoni Pole||NT||6'1, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||21.0||2.6%||4.0||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Destiny Vaeao||DE||6'4, 288||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||20.0||2.5%||3.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Darryl Paulo||DT||6'2, 272||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||8.0||1.0%||3.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Lyman Faoliu||DE||6'3, 265||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||9||5.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Robert Barber||NT||6'3, 292||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Moritz Christ||NT||6'5, 321||Jr.||NR|
|Daniel Ekuale||DT||6'3, 271||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Ngalu Tapa||DT||6'3, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Darryl Monroe||MIKE||6'1, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||77.5||9.7%||8.0||2.0||0||3||2||0|
|Cyrus Coen||SAM||6'0, 211||Sr.||NR||11||49.5||6.2%||6.5||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tana Pritchard||WILL||6'3, 228||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||43.0||5.4%||4.5||0.0||0||3||0||0|
|Kache Palacio||BUCK||6'2, 224||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||36.5||4.6%||6.5||4.0||0||2||2||0|
|Jeremiah Allison||WILL||6'2, 224||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||13||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Mitchell Peterson||SAM||6'1, 214||Sr.||NR||8||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ivan McLennan||BUCK||6'4, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Chester Su'a||WILL||6'1, 227||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Paris Taylor||SAM||6'3, 206||So.||NR|
|Peyton Pelluer||MIKE||6'0, 216||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Greg Hoyd||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Dylan Hanser||MIKE||6'4, 211||Fr.||NR|
8. More havoc, please
WSU has indeed improved from 94th to 76th to 54th in Def. F/+ during Breske's tenure, but if the Cougars are going to take another step forward, they will need to once again add to their disruption numbers, and not only because the secondary's going to need a little more help.
Of the nine linemen or linebackers to log at least 3.5 tackles for loss, eight return, including disruptive tackle Xavier Cooper and two strong blitzing linebackers in Cyrus Coen and Kache Palacio. But even with these players, WSU ranked just 101st in Adj. Sack Rate and 72nd in Stuff Rate. They need help.
As with the offense, the level of experience is strong here. Guys like tackle/treestump Toni Pole and middle linebacker Darryl Monroe have been steady contributors for a couple of years now, and again, familiarity and chemistry can make a difference. But if some young playmaker were to emerge, there's some playing time available, especially on passing downs.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Daquawn Brown||CB||5'11, 170||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||43.0||5.4%||2.5||0||2||5||0||0|
|Taylor Taliulu||FS||5'11, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||42.0||5.3%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Isaac Dotson||SS||6'1, 206||So.||3 stars (5.5)||7||8.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tracy Clark||CB||5'11, 189||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|David Bucannon||SS||6'0, 196||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Beau Glover||FS||5'9, 170||So.||NR|
|Darius Lemora||SS||5'11, 187||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Charleston White||CB||5'10, 175||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Marcellus Pippins||CB||5'10, 162||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
9. Starting over in the secondary
Heading into 2013, Wazzu returned 82 percent of its tackles, 67 percent of its tackles for loss, and 71 percent of its passes defensed from the previous year. The predictable result: across-the-board improvement. Granted, because of the quality of opposing offenses (not to mention the fact that WSU held more leads in 2013), the Cougars ranked 114th in passing yards allowed per game. But they moved from 94th in Passing S&P+ to 65th.
Heading into 2014, the numbers are just a bit different: Wazzu returns 29 percent of last year's tackles, 21 percent of tackles for loss and 25 percent of passes defensed. Sophomore corner Daquawn Brown appears to be a keeper, and safety Taylor Taliulu had a role to play in Wazzu's stellar big-play prevention numbers, but that's it. All-conference safety (and no-conscience hitter) Deone Bucannon is gone, as are corner Damante Horton and last year's top three reserves. Wazzu really only played about eight DBs last year, and five are gone.
Even if Brown is the real deal, this unit will regress, and the front seven will have to make up the difference.
|Wes Concepcion||6'0, 187||Sr.||12||36.3||1||8||3||91.7%|
|Rickey Galvin||KR||5'8, 171||Sr.||24||22.4||0|
|Teondray Caldwell||KR||5'9, 202||Jr.||14||22.4||0|
|Special Teams F/+||53|
|Field Goal Efficiency||20|
|Punt Return Efficiency||31|
|Kick Return Efficiency||103|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||74|
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|8-Nov||at Oregon State||43|
|22-Nov||at Arizona State||21|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-16.7% (107)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||60|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / -6.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (8, 7)|
10. A strong start is a must
Drastic experience at the skill positions, and minimal experience on the offensive line. Well-seasoned play-makers in the defensive front seven, and a nearly total lack thereof in the secondary.
This team is hard to read this year. (That goes for special teams, as well -- some iffy return men return, and a great place-kicker departs.)
Teams tend to regress toward the mean sometimes after a strong step forward, and moving up 45 spots in the F/+ rankings (from 98th to 53rd) certainly signifies quite a step. There's enough experience here to prevent too much of a drop-off, but despite this team getting closer to the Leachian ideal, the offensive line and secondary will probably prevent another positive step.
That makes September success vital. Washington State plays only five teams projected 45th or worse, and all five come up on the first half of the schedule.
If the Cougs beat Rutgers in Seattle and sweep Nevada, Portland State, and Cal, then they'll only need an upset or two to get back to bowl eligibility. But with one early slip-up, Wazzu will need 2013-level silliness to get back to 6-6.
Who wins a division title first: CU in the South or WSU in the North? ("Neither" is not an option. My rules.)— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) July 11, 2014
It's an interesting time to be in the Pac-12. The upward mobility derived from a good hire is negated when everybody else is making good hires, too. Leach was clearly a good hire, and it didn't take him much time at all to make Washington State interesting and competitive for the first time in a decade.
But the Cougs' future is curious in a division with established Oregon and Stanford programs, a Washington squad that also surged in 2013, and an Oregon State team that has long since staked a claim to the "salty and speedy underdog" rep.
If Wazzu's gains are barely outpacing that of the conference as a whole, how long does it take the Cougs to get to the eight- or nine-win mark? And is that the ceiling?
A second straight minor bowl wouldn't really answer that question, but that's probably the closest we're going to get in 2014.