A look to WSU future, starting with bowl game

SEATTLE – Mike Leach and his coaching staff have been lauded for bringing Washington State football back from the dead in just two years of work. Still, Saturday's Apple Cup loss proved that much work remains to be done – and the window to complete that work may be closing fast.

The WSU defense that could not make key stops in the second half had six senior starters, including the entire secondary. The Cougars' two leading tacklers, safety Deone Bucannon and linebacker Justin Sagote, are seniors.

The WSU offense that could not make key plays in the second half had three senior starters and four junior starters. All three of the seniors are linemen, and all four juniors are skill-position players.

Special teams will also take a hit next year, since kicker Andrew Furney and punter-kickoff specialist Mike Bowlin are seniors. Bowlin has struggled with inconsistency and was benched Saturday, when Furney handled the kickoffs (for the second straight week) and junior Wes Concepcion punted (and reminded no one of Ray Guy).

If you believe 4- and 5-star recruits build champions, quarterback Tyler Bruggman, a freshman who redshirted this season, and second-year sophomore receiver Gabe Marks are the only 4-star recruits Mike Leach's staff has landed in three recruiting classes, (with the third to be inked on Feb. 5.)

Small wonder, then, that the Cougars are desperate to go to a bowl game for more reasons than not having done so since 2013. The most commonly talked-about destinations are the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque and the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit. A source tells Cougfan.com it's looking a lot like the New Mexico Bowl. But it's all guesswork at this point.

"I'll take anything," senior cornerback Nolan Washington said.

Washington WAS PROBABLY speaking for Cougars everywhere. That most definitely includes athletic director Bill Moos, who likes to think WSU's first bowl in 10 years will spur ticket sales and fund-raising, even though participants in low-tier bowls like the ones eyeing the Cougars are all but guaranteed to lose money on the bowl trip itself.

Leach, who guided all 10 of his Texas Tech teams to bowl games, is not the first coach to have said the extra practices the NCAA approves for bowl participants are invaluable for young players. The Cougars gave virtually no snaps to any reserve offensive linemen this year, and that could come back to haunt a pass-happy team next season.

John Fullington, the senior right tackle out of North Mason High School, will certainly be difficult to replace. He's started every game the past 3 1-2 seasons, taking snaps at every position on the offensive line except center.

THERE IS PLENTY of reason for optimism about the Cougars' future, of course. Halliday had a breakthrough year despite the high interception total, and one would presume his progress (i.e. making wiser decisions with the ball as the season wore on, though that was not always the case on Saturday) will continue as a senior.

WSU's 10 leading receivers – all, rather remarkably, with 25 or more catches this year – return, as do the three primary running backs. Five of the top seven tacklers are back, including regular starters Taylor Taliulu at safety and Cyrus Coen at linebacker. Those two players did not start the past two games due to injuries.

In addition to talent, the Cougars return a certain bravado they seem to have inherited from their brash head coach. Senior starters Bucannon and Washington have little to gain from singing the praises about Leach and his assistants at this point in their careers, so their post-game comments Saturday were telling.

"The coaching staff … changed who we are," Bucannon said. "Changed our mindset. "Coach Leach is a great coach, and his surrounding staff is a great staff. They brought abilities out of us that we didn't have before."

Washington seconded the motion.

"Leach runs a great program … it's only going to go up from here."

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