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Washington State has become a Mike Leach program in every way. What’s 2017 hold?

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Relentlessly efficient offense? Opportunistic defense? Bad special teams? Eight or nine wins? Yep, this is a Leach team.

Arizona v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Forest Evashevski, Jackie Sherrill, Warren Powers, and Dennis Erickson combined to win 480 games in their careers. Evashevski led Iowa to four top-six finishes and two Rose Bowls in the 1950s. Sherrill had four top-10 finishes at Pitt, two at Texas A&M, and a few good years at Mississippi State. (He also made news for, uh, other things.) Powers had three ranked finishes at Missouri at the turn of the 1980s. Erickson won two national titles at Miami and had at least one nine-win season at Idaho, Wazzu, Oregon State, and Arizona State.

Washington State hired them all. They lasted a combined six years. The former three were from other regions and found gigs closer to home; Erickson got called to Miami the moment he began to win at Wazzu.

Choosing a coach who will stay is a good way to limit your ceiling. The first step should be choosing a coach who will win, but you could see why a school like Wazzu might be tentative to hire an up-and-comer. Its three hires after Erickson left were Mike Price (who had taken Weber State to the I-AA playoffs once in eight years), Bill Doba (Price’s 63-year-old defensive coordinator), and Paul Wulff (who was 53-40 in eight years at EWU).

Price worked, engineering three top-10 finishes and taking the Cougs to two Rose Bowls. When he left for an ill-fated, blink-and-you-missed-it stint at Alabama, he left the cupboard stocked enough that Doba was able to win 10 games and finish in the top 10 in his first year.

The balance between upside and loyalty is tenuous, though. The next eight years of Doba and Wulff produced zero winning seasons, and the Cougars bottomed out in Wulff’s first two years.

When Wulff was let go following 2011, however, the timing was right. By hiring Leach, WSU found the best of two worlds. He is a worldly, accomplished coach — 84 wins in 10 years at Texas Tech, with five ranked finishes in the last six years — who might not mind sticking around and whose enigmatic personality might scare other teams from stealing him, if he were to win big in Pullman.

After an up-and-down start (two three-win seasons sandwiching a six-win New Mexico Bowl campaign), Wazzu has gone 17-9 since the start of 2015 (17-7 against FBS teams, strangely enough), and we see a true Leach program taking shape.

A Leach program probably isn’t going to be a national title contender, which can frustrate fans after a while. But it’s going to win.

  • It’s going to feature a relentlessly efficient, almost completely pass-dependent offense. It might not produce big plays, but it’s going to stress defenses horizontally. It’ll still be unique, even in the age of the spread offense.
  • It’s going to feature an aggressive run defense. That’s not quite the same as an excellent defense — Wazzu’s D ranked 44th in Rushing S&P+ last year — but like the offense, the Cougs’ defense is figuring out ways to dictate what you have to do to win. You might do them well, but that’s secondary.
  • Of late, it’s going to feature bad special teams. In three years of Special Teams S&P+ data, Wazzu has ranked 120th, 105th, and 122nd. Be it a poor emphasis on special teams, not enough practice time, the wrong personnel, etc., this has cost WSU one or two points per game.

There’s no reason to think things will change much in 2017. WSU ranked 41st in S&P+ last year and is projected 40th this year. The Cougs return a majority of their skill corps and most of last year’s defensive production.

If you stay two years in Pullman, you’re likely to stay for a long time, and Leach is entering year six. That means a lot of eight-win seasons in Wazzu’s future, perhaps occasionally something more.


2016 in review

2016 Wazzu statistical profile.

One of these years, WSU should see what happens if it doesn’t begin with a loss to an FCS team. The 2015 Cougars lost 24-17 to Portland State, then won eight of 10. In 2016, they lost 45-42 to Eastern Washington, fell in a competitive battle at Boise State, then won eight in a row. Hey, it works for them.

(In 2017, beat Montana State and take a couple of tough home games against Boise State and Oregon State, and you might 4-0 when USC comes to town on September 28.)

The defense needed that Week 1 warmup to ease into 2016, but the offense was maybe the most consistently solid Leach has had. Wazzu ranked 24th in Off. S&P+, 12 spots higher than any other in Leach’s tenure. It ranked even higher until a late funk.

  • First 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 50% (~top 65) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 8.1, WSU 6.2 (minus-1.9) | Avg. score: Opp 38, WSU 35
  • Next 8 games (8-0): Avg. percentile performance: 75% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: WSU 6.5, Opp 5.5 (plus-0.7) | Avg. score: WSU 47, Opp 21
  • Last 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 38% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.1, WSU 4.9 (minus-1.2) | Avg. score: Opp 33, WSU 18

Ball control was of grave importance for Wazzu, as it is most of the time for Leach. In eight wins, the Cougars averaged 79.4 snaps to opponents’ 64.9, a massive advantage. But in five losses, opponents were able to play keepaway, averaging 5.9 more snaps and holding WSU to 1.2 fewer. Considering three losses came by one possession, that can make a huge difference.


Offense

Washington State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It’s hard to come up with new things to say about Leach’s offense. When he showed up in Pullman, he seemed to make a show of breaking out the pistol formation in practice and hinting at changes. But while the routes have changed here and there, a Leach offense is still a Leach offense, passing more than any team in FBS.

Wazzu threw 65 percent of the time on standard downs (most in the country) and 81 percent on passing downs (second-most). They work at a high (though not extreme) tempo and generate all the solo tackle opportunities you would expect from constant passes to the sideline.

Efficiency has always been the hallmark of this system, but that emphasis was extreme even for WSU last year.

Washington State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

WSU had one of the three best success rates in the Pac-12, but the Cougars’ big plays were minimal. They were 15th in the country with 228 gains of 10-plus yards but 86th with only 24 gains of 30-plus. Only two primary receivers averaged better than 11.9 yards per catch. Star Gabe Marks averaged 10 per catch. This was extreme dink-and-dunk, and it became even more so when River Cracraft (13.2 yards per catch) missed the last three games.

Marks and Cracraft are gone, but virtually every other skill guy is back, and Luke Falk somehow still has eligibility left. It feels like Falk has been in Pullman forever, and in three years he has compiled 10,893 passing yards and 89 touchdowns. A third 4,400-yard season would allow him to cross 15,000 career yards and move into the national top five all-time. Barring injury (knock on wood), he’ll probably get there.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State
Tavares Martin
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Tavares Martin is now the leading returning receiver, but the key is balance. That’s a strange thing to say about a team that runs so infrequently, but balance for Wazzu is about semi-equal ball distribution to running backs, outside receivers, and inside receivers all.

  • Running backs: Primary WSU backs carried 284 times and saw 152 targets, a total of 33.5 intended touches per game.
  • Outside receivers: Primary Z and X receivers were targeted 296 times, 22.8 per game.
  • Inside receivers: Primary Y and H receivers were targeted 194 times, 14.9 per game.

Despite crazy-low run rates, Wazzu backs were exciting and productive. James Williams, Jamal Morrow, and Gerard Wicks averaged 5.8 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per target. That will play well in this system. And the fact that they had Leach’s best WSU line helped. All-American guard Cody O’Connell and honorable mention all-conference tackle Cole Madison are back, though two starters depart.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State
James Williams
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Still, this offense is receiver-heavy, so you should know their names. Inside receivers Robert Lewis and Kyle Sweet both had success rates over 56 percent last year (behind only Cracraft at 62 percent), and Sweet averaged a healthy 13.2 yards per catch. JUCO transfer Easop Winston and four-star freshman Jamire Calvin could also have exciting roles from the slot positions.

On the outside, sophomores Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Dezmon Patmon offer big targets, as does senior CJ Dimry. If they can occasionally break tackles and burst upfield a bit on the sideline, Falk might be able to threaten 5,000 yards.

Defense

Washington State defensive radar

There were “Washington State plays defense now!!” stories emerging last fall, and a lot had to do with low expectations. When coordinator Alex Grinch came to town from Missouri, he inherited a defense that had ranked 101st in Def. S&P+ in 2014. So rising to 74th in 2015 and 63rd in 2016 felt like turning into Alabama.

Still, this defense was excellent at the things a Leach defense needs to be excellent at, at least against teams from outside the state. (EWU and Washington combined to average 8.5 yards per play and 45 points per game.) Their overall S&P+ stats weren’t that great — 44th in Rushing S&P+, 103rd in Passing S&P+, 74th in Standard Downs S&P+, 83rd in Passing Downs S&P+ — but they created negative plays, especially against the run, and negative plays create turnover opportunities.

In two years under Grinch, Wazzu has forced 47 turnovers. There is some luck and randomness involved in turnovers, but forcing opponents into second- or third-and-longs increases the likelihood of a harried quarterback or a loose ball. And while opponents were able to convert plenty of first downs in one or two plays, the WSU defense’s average third down distance was 6.6 yards, 25th in the country.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State
Hercules Mata'afa
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Wazzu’s greatest strength was forcing negativity up front. The Cougars were seventh in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 22nd in power success rate. They forced opponents to pass, and while plenty of Pac-12 opponents can (as can EWU), defining an opponent’s options is step one toward a stop.

There’s no reason to think last year’s Coug strengths will be any weaker, not with five of the top six linemen and each of the top four linebackers returning. Junior end Hercules Mata’afa generated 13.5 tackles for loss last year, and linebackers Peyton Pelluer, Isaac Dotson, and Frankie Luvu combined for 20.5. This unit doesn’t have a ton of size, but it’s all sorts of active.

The next step: generating a pass rush. Just imagine how many turnovers the Cougars could have forced if they’d had an average one. They ranked 110th in Adj. Sack Rate — Mata’afa and Nnamdi Oguayo were the only players with more than two sacks. If someone like JUCO transfer Preston Henry or redshirt freshmen Lyric Bartley or Mason Vinyard can add some energy, this front seven will be dynamite.

This is important because the secondary probably isn’t going to improve. Granted, the DBs weren’t done any favors by the pass rush, but aside from Boise State, good passing teams had great games against WSU. EWU, Cal, and Washington combined for 1,263 yards, a 73 percent completion rate, and 11 touchdowns to two interceptions.

Unless newcomers contribute quickly, depth could be a major issue in the back. WSU returns only four of its top nine defensive backs. Corner Darrien Molton and safety Jalen Thompson (combined: 5 TFLs, 13 passes defensed) had their moments, but WSU will lean on guys who didn’t do much last year — junior Hunter Dale, sophomore Marcus Strong, JUCO transfer Sean Harper, freshman Zaire Webb, etc. — to not only hold the fort but improve the pass defense.

Washington State v Colorado
Jalen Thompson
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Special Teams

Oy. Leach teams have been horrendous in special teams, and the fact that the Cougs have won 17 games in two years (and have won more close games than they lost) despite this is impressive.

At least you can say youth was part of the problem last year. There were no seniors involved, and while the return game was inefficient, it produced two scores. Punt returner Kaleb Fossum is gone, but primary KR Robert Taylor is back, and Jamal Morrow certainly has potential back there.

That doesn’t solve the kicking, though. WSU covered kickoffs pretty well, but punter Kyle Sweet averaged just 38.3 yards per kick, and Erik Powell’s percentage on kicks under 40 yards (67 percent) is about what you’d hope for on kicks over 40. There’s still a long way to go here.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Montana State NR 30.3 96%
9-Sep Boise State 29 -0.1 50%
16-Sep Oregon State 54 5.1 62%
23-Sep Nevada 117 21.6 89%
29-Sep USC 7 -13.2 22%
7-Oct at Oregon 23 -8.0 32%
13-Oct at California 55 0.2 50%
21-Oct Colorado 50 4.6 60%
28-Oct at Arizona 68 2.1 55%
4-Nov Stanford 12 -9.8 28%
11-Nov at Utah 45 -1.3 47%
25-Nov at Washington 13 -14.4 20%
Projected S&P+ Rk 40
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 30 / 67
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.0 (66)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 51 / 54
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 1.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (67%, 72%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (0.4)

Leach won eight or more games in his last eight years at Tech and has done so in each of his last two years in Pullman. It’s easy to assume this is the new norm, and when you look at the returning personnel, it’s really easy to assume.

It’s not hard to see a temporary shift up or down, though. Like so many other Pac-12 schedules, Washington State’s is fraught with potential tossups, which opens a range of results. S&P+ projects the Cougs 40th but says 6-6 might be their most likely record.

On the other hand, the No. 30 projection for this offense feels low despite the loss of Marks and Cracraft. This might be the best running back corps Leach has had, and he showed last year that he’s willing to lean on that position, even if it’s via pass. If the offense improves, the run defense improves more than the pass defense regresses, and special teams is less of a drag, this could be a top-30 team.

And with only two games likely out of reach — USC, at Washington — a run toward nine or 10 wins isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

This is officially a Leach program, and it could be that for a long time. As a college football fan, that makes me very happy.

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