Lots of reasons behind WSU's successful start

AN UPSET WIN against No. 5 Stanford at 7 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field would set up Washington State at 4-1 and make a compelling case for a top 25 poll ranking. That notion led to a series of questions for head coach Mike Leach about the difference between this season and 2012 during his Tuesday morning Pac-12 coaches teleconference.

The Cougars (3-1 overall, 1-0 conference) already have matched their win total from last season. Leach, who guided Texas Tech to 10 consecutive bowl appearances before suffering his first losing season last year at WSU, attributes much of the team's early success to strong chemistry and work ethic.

"I think it's a byproduct of working hard for it," said Leach, adding that the Cougars also started 17 freshmen a year ago. "I think it starts in the weight room and when you're running sprints. There was almost a mentality [when I arrived] that the offseason was optional. Work hard if you want to."

Leach cautioned that WSU still is youthful and "we've got a long ways to go." During Saturday's 42-0 win against Idaho, the Cougars had four starters each on offense and defense that were either freshmen or sophomores.

That inexperience is one concern Leach has when his team faces the Cardinal (3-0, 1-0). Stanford had 10 sacks, including a pair when WSU reached the red zone on its final drive, during its 24-17 win last year against the Cougars.

"I think it's a concern," Leach said. "Stanford is big and physical up front. You can't attack the same spot or they will tee off on you."

WSU's inability to protect quarterback Jeff Tuel, who now plays in the NFL with Buffalo, was a significant reason behind the team's failure to pull off the upset at Stanford. The Cougars have allowed seven sacks this season, which is tied for 68th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but that has not been their biggest problem in the red zone.

WSU has scored on just 64.7 percent of its opportunities in the red zone, which ranks 111th nationally. Turnovers have been a significant issue as junior quarterback Connor Halliday has completed 124 of 187 passes for 1,288 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Leach said his team has to improve in that regard, but he also cited the caliber of some of the defenses the Cougars have competed against. For example, USC ranks fourth nationally in total defense.

The Trojans, who were upset 10-7 by WSU on Sept. 7, are the only Pac-12 team ranked higher than the Cougars in total defense. WSU, which has allowed an average of 264.8 yards per game, is 10th nationally in that statistic.

"I think getting older and everyone getting used to the package," said Leach, when asked about the improvement from a unit that ranked 81st in total defense nationally last year.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Leach responded to a CF.C question about Chester Su'a's status. The junior linebacker has not played this season. Leach said the coaching staff is "still deciding" whether to redshirt Su'a.

  • Come one and all for the annual Cougfan.com Seattle Tailgate on Saturday. This year marks our first tailgate without hostess supreme Karlynn "Ma" Howard, who passed away earlier this year. About as generous a human being as there ever was. So this year will mark the start of the annual Karlynn "Ma" Howard Memorial Tailgater at CenturyLink, and we want you to be there! As always, cold refreshments, burgers, brats, dogs and tater salad will be in abundance. No charge -- just say you read CF.C religiously and you're good to go! Look for the Cougfan.com banner somewhere near the intersection of 3rd Ave. S and Holgate, just south of Outdoor Emporium in the alley/general street parking area. Festivities should start around 3:00 and hope to start breaking down around 6:00 in order to see the kickoff.

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