COMMENTARY: Why the Cougs will/won’t shine

PULLMAN – Washington State football fans are a curious lot in that most tend to be optimistic – unrealistically so, in the eyes of some outsiders – yet many crimson-clad rooters seem to live in eternal fear that a trap door awaits them.

This fall, optimism has been created by obvious advances in talent, experience, athleticism and depth after four years of recruiting by Mike Leach and his staff. The trap door could be the lack of an established game-breaker on either side of the ball: None of the current Cougars has ever made the All-Pac-12 first or second team.

And lest we forget, WSU’s defense has been leaky for years.

Could Gabe Marks develop into a game-breaker this year? Sure he could. Luke Falk? Certainly. Dom Williams? Possibly. Kyrin Priester? Maybe. Gerard Wicks? Don’t rule him out (pictured above). Joe Dahl? It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of a left tackle like Dahl, who protects the blind side of a right-handed quarterback like Falk.

Anyone notice that none of those players are defensive players? Yeah, me, too.

Las Vegas oddsmakers lay 200-1 odds that WSU will win the Pac-12 championship. That sounds about right to me.

But what WILL happen in 2015? Gazing into my crystal ball, here are the answers to key questions.

Q: Will the Cougars go to a bowl game?

A: Yep … if they start 4-0. Perhaps if they start 3-1. No chance if they start 2-2. Portland State and Wyoming are gimmes at home; Rutgers and California are winnable games on the road. That takes us to game five, when Cougars will lose at seventh-ranked Oregon before bouncing back with a homecoming win over a lousy Oregon State team. The Cougars finish the season against underwhelming teams from Colorado (at home) and Washington (in Seattle). Add ‘em up, and there’s seven wins to be had without a major upset.

Q: Why won’t the Cougars go to a bowl game if they start 2-2?

A: Because they play five AP preseason Top 25 teams in a span of six games, starting with No. 7 Oregon on Oct. 10. Leach’s combined record against the five ranked teams (Oregon, Arizona, Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA) is 1-11 with WSU, and most of the scores have been ug-leee. The one win came at Arizona in 2013.

Q: Will Luke Falk fail or succeed after starting just three college games at quarterback?

A: He will succeed because this is his third year in the program and he’s played in this type of offense since high school. In short, he's comfortable in the Air Raid. I mean, did Falk set some sort of world record when he passed for 601 yards in his second college start last year? Of course, he did pass the ball 74 times and had five turnovers that day (a 52-31 loss at Arizona State). His inexperience was obvious then, and it will rear its ugly head on occasion this year. He’s fortunate to have a solid offensive line, terrific receivers and a running game that – surprise! – will be more than a rumor this season.

Q: Speaking of which, what should we expect out of WSU’s running game?

A: Nothing spectacular, but enough to keep defenses honest. Gerard Wicks, whose muscular new body looks like something out of a comic book, is one powerful running back. Of course, he can’t do much if the blocking isn’t there, and the Cougars’ O-linemen must prove they are physical and nasty enough to do something more than their standard drop-backs in pass protection. They didn’t get much practice at run blocking during Leach’s first three years in town.

Q: Is this a make-or-break season for Leach?

A: Nah. It takes a while to build a program back up and Bill Moos is firmly in Leach's corner no matter what. That said, it’s a bit unsettling that two of Leach’s three WSU teams won only three games, so it’s only natural for fans to question The Mike Leach Way Of Doing Things. If the Cougars fail to post a winning record this year and/or next, then Leach’s coaching seat will get toasty.

Q: Has WSU’s defense improved?

A: Yes, but there are still plenty of question marks. No one has given any indication they can be a dominant player in the Pac-12. The secondary is still frightfully young and inexperienced. Starting a true freshman at cornerback (Darrien Molton) in a pass-happy league like the Pac-12 is scary, plain and simple. Molton is a talent, however, and Charleston White looks improved at the other corner spot. Wait until you see junior college transfer Shalom Luani lay the wood on some poor sucker. No one is safe with the ball in their hands near this safety.

Q: Will Gabe Marks, or any other receiver, break Vince Mayle’s school record of 106 catches in a season?

A: Nope. The Cougars are blessed with too many viable receiver options for one player to top the mark Mayle set last year despite dropping a load of passes. Besides, Mayle caught 24 more passes than any other player in school history. Marquess Wilson ranks second with “only” 82 receptions in 2011. Keep an eye on Dom Williams. The senior is so big and talented and has made so many spectacular catches, most fans don’t realize he didn’t start one game last year, yet still caught 43 passes, including nine for touchdowns.

Q. Will the special teams be better than last year?

A: How could they be worse? Seriously, the addition of kick returners Priester and Tavares Martin alone brings a whole new dynamic to WSU’s special teams. But it remains to be seen if the Cougars have the type of skills, coaching and team-first attitudes that are necessary to thrive on special teams.

Q: Season-ticket sales are down, and the Cougars announced Tuesday that 8,000 tickets were still available for Saturday’s opener against Portland State. Concerned?

A: Yeah, a little bit. Cougars are devoutly loyal to their school, but when it comes to filling seats and making donations, they're not exactly role models. People like to use the Labor Day weekend (and mass exodus of students from Pullman) as an excuse, but it really shouldn’t be that difficult to sell out every game at the smallest stadium in the Pac-12. Downtown Pullman is a gas on football weekends, and if all the hotels are sold out in Pullman, just make the short drive to or from Moscow, Colfax or Lewiston. Spokane is a long field goal away, especially with an 11 a.m. kickoff like Saturday. Win or lose, the Cougars usually provide entertaining football with Leach’s offense. Of course, it does not send fans streaming to the ticket windows when a) you open against Portland State, a bad Big Sky team; b) you’re 13-25 at Martin Stadium since 2008, including 1-5 last year; and c) you haven’t posted a winning record in 12 long, painful years. Win, and they will come. Eventually.

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