Behind the Cougs' stunning o-line turnaround

PULLMAN – Legendary sportscaster Keith Jackson affectionately referred to football linemen as "the big uglies," but the improvement of Washington State's offensive line has been a beautiful thing to watch this season. Jackson, a WSU alum, is delighted to see that.

After all, watching WSU's offensive line a year ago was somewhat akin to watching a never-ending car wreck. The Cougars' O-linemen were credited with a dastardly double dip last season when they "helped" WSU finish last in the nation in rushing with just 29.1 yards per game and first in the nation in quarterback sacks allowed with a school-record 57. Washington State's quarterbacks spent more time on their backs than drunken turtles.

One year later, the Cougars have reduced sacks allowed per game from 4.75 per game to 1.88 under WSU second-year offensive line coach Clay McGuire.

Washington State has allowed a total of 15 sacks – just one more than opponents – in eight games, even though the Cougars have passed the ball a nation-leading 470 times, which is 97 more than their rivals.

"We're bigger, we're stronger, we're more experienced (on the offensive line)," coach Mike Leach said.

"We were really poor last year," center Elliott Bosch said. "This year, for the most part, we've done some good things. We're obviously not perfect and have a long ways to go, but we're getting a lot better."

The Cougars rank last in rushing for the second straight year, but they've doubled their output to 58.4 yards per game despite ranking last in rushing attempts (145) for the second straight year.

Twice the Cougars have rushed for more than 100 yards, and they've scored eight rushing touchdowns after producing only six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last year.

Two weeks ago, the Cougars ran the ball just 12 times – including four sacks -- for 2 yards at second-ranked Oregon. However, Connor Halliday set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 89 pass attempts, and he broke the Pac-12 Conference record with 557 passing yards against Oregon's 18th-ranked defense.

"The O-line played great," Halliday said afterwards.

"The offensive line did a good job of blocking," WSU defensive end Xavier Cooper agreed. "They've gotten better and better each week. I think they're giving Connor great opportunities."

One of the keys to the offensive line's improvement has been the bounce-back season of John Fullington, the former North Mason High star out of Belfair, Wash.

Like most of WSU's offensive linemen, Fullington struggled to adapt to the new offensive system and blocking schemes introduced by Leach last season. The 6-foot-5, 301-pound senior spent much of spring ball with the second string this year, but he was back with the starters at fall camp.

"Fullington had a tough year last year and is playing real well this year," Leach said.

Fullington, who did not redshirt, has started 38 consecutive games since moving into the starting lineup midway through his freshman year. No other active Cougar has started more than 20 straight games.

Fullington said the threat to his starting status motivated him in the off-season. Jason Loscalzo, the notoriously demanding strength and conditioning coach of the football team – players don't call him "Coach Loco" only because of his last name – has cited Fullington as one of the hardest workers and biggest benefactors of WSU's off-season training program.

Fullington has started at every position on the line except center during his college career. This season, he started at right guard the first five games, then moved to right tackle to replace the struggling Rico Forbes.

That opened a starting job at right guard for senior Matt Goetz, a part-time starter last year. Goetz clashed with Leach as a freshman at Texas Tech and wound up transferring to a junior college -- he came to WSU before Leach arrived – but Leach has often praised Goetz for surviving in the Pac-12 despite being undersized at 6-4 and 270.

"Goetz is smaller but has some versatility," Leach said.

Leach frequently raves about the leadership qualities of Bosch, another undersized senior at 6-4, 280. Bosch and starting left tackle Gunnar Eklund, a 6-7, 300-pound sophomore, are former walk-ons. Starting left guard Joe Dahl, a 6-4, 290-pound sophomore, temporarily remains a walk-on because of NCAA rules regarding his transfer from Montana last year.

"We've become a really close unit and have good leadership on the unit," Bosch said. "The guys on the offensive line bought in and realized that we were one of the issues last year.

"We didn't want to be an issue this year."

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