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Here's how Washington State went from Pac-12 laughingstock to dangerous opponent

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The Cougars have patched some major flaws and quietly put together quite a turnaround.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars, Pac-12 bottom-feeders for years, have made real progress this year. They've done it by pairing an already-extraordinary passing offense with huge improvements in areas where they'd previously been terrible: pass defense and running the ball.

Since a season-opening catastrophe against Portland State, the Cougars are 7-2, their only losses coming by a possession at Cal and in a heartbreaker at home against Stanford. What's stunning about the Cougars season, though, is that they're a couple feet of a field goal away from having command of the Pac-12 North. Even still, they're ranked this week, and fans are justifiably thrilled with the program's progress.

For a team that finished 12-25 in Leach's first three years and 3-9 in 2014, it's been quite a change of pace. And it's started with the defense.

The unit was a dumpster fire last season, and now it isn't. The Cougars gave up 38.6 points per contest last year, and now they're giving up 29.8. In points-per-game, they've gone from No. 117 to No. 86 -- not extraordinary, but enough to make a difference in the wins column.

Washington State's defensive turnaround
Stat 2014 2015
Points/game 38.6 29.8
Defensive S&P+ rank 95 90
Rushing S&P+ rank 76 100
Passing S&P+ rank 78 34
Turnovers/game 0.66 1.8

The Cougars are doing one particular defensive thing much better than last year, and it's changing everything. They're preventing teams from doing exactly what they do to other teams.

Last year, Wazzu averaged more than 400 passing yards but let other teams throw for 297 per game -- second-worst in the country. That was a huge mitigator to Leach's Air Raid success.

This year, the Cougars are still clearing 400 air yards per game, but they're only allowing 220 now. That's up from No. 127 in FBS to No. 60, taking the Cougars from awful to perfectly respectable. They're also ball-hawking a bit, coming away with 18 turnovers in 10 games, including an impressive 12 interceptions. Last year, they had three picks for the entire season.

The Cougars are running the ball more efficiently

Last year, the Cougars relied fully on quarterbacks Connor Halliday and Luke Falk to drive an offense with no other engine. It worked to some extent, with the two signal-callers (but mostly Halliday) combining to throw for 5,732 yards and 45 touchdowns. But defenses knew exactly what was coming, picking off the Cougars 18 times in 12 games. The passing offense wasn't as efficient as it could've been, and it didn't have help from a run game.

The Cougs are up 55 spots in rushing S&P+ from last year, moving up to No. 62 after finishing No. 117 ion 2014. Wazzu finished 2014 averaging 1.97 yards per rush, which reads like a typo until you realize not a single ball-carrier got more than seven carries per game, or 400 yards for the whole season. The Cougars, ultimately, decided to abandon the run almost completely:

This year, Washington State is No. 11 in rushing success rate. The Cougars aren't very explosive, with a ground IsoPPP that ranks No. 124 out of 128 FBS teams. But what they lack in explosiveness, they gain in steadiness. The team's top three running backs -- Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington -- are together averaging nearly 6 yards per run.

The Cougars are only running a little bit more this year: 31 percent of standard downs, up from 26. But they're helping themselves a lot more when they do decide to run, giving their quarterbacks vital support.

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Leach's prolific passing game is still here, too

None of this should overlook Falk, of course. He's having a tremendous season and has become the latest in a long line of impressive Leach quarterbacks:

Mike Leach's Starting Quarterbacks, 2006-2015
Year QB Yards Touchdowns Rating
2006 Graham Harrell 4,555 38 145.5
2007 Graham Harrell 5,705 48 157.3
2008 Graham Harrell 5,111 45 160
2009 Taylor Potts 3,440 22 137.1
2012 Jeff Tuel* 2,087 8 119.5
2013 Connor Halliday 4,597 34 126.5
2014 Connor Halliday** 3,873 32 145
2015 Luke Falk (10 games) 4,067 35 149.7
* Shared significant time with Halliday
** Shared significant time with Falk

Falk, a sophomore, compares very closely to Harrell, who posted 38 touchdowns and a 145.5 rating in his own sophomore season in 2006. If Falk gets on the same trajectory under Leach, he'll be a legitimate Heisman candidate moving forward.

On the whole, the Cougars are averaging 35.2 points per game. Last year, they averaged 31.8. For a team with four one-possession wins and two by a solitary field goal, those three points shouldn't be understated.

Leach's Cougars are a bunch of fun. Theirs has been a quirky season, no doubt, but they're a shining example of what happens when a team goes from absolutely terrible at certain things -- running the ball, playing pass defense -- to finding competence on both sides of the ball. The Cougars have found obvious fits and shored up their flaws.

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