Washington State grades for offense, defense, special teams for first half of season; CF.C Awards

THE FIRST HALF of the Washington State football season began with a shocker and the slowest of starts, but was book ended by a show of strength. Saturday’s scrum at Arizona, and every WSU game to come, now loom huge but before we get to that, here’s a look back, with grades for each of the three phases and the handing out of awards.

The bottom line is the scoreboard. So how has Washington State (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) done? They've outscored opponents by an average score of 35-29 through the first six games.

They’ve shown improvement in how they play coming out of the locker room but that third quarter is still their biggest vice, with a 44-21 deficit.  WSU has owned the second quarter, 79-33, and they’ve gotten off to a good start with a 45-34 advantage in the first quarter.  The fourth quarter has been just like their first half of the season, wild. Opponents hold a slight edge in the final stanza, 57-51. (WSU holds a 14-7 edge in OT).

On paper, the opposition gets tougher from here on out and particularly over the next four games with three Pac-12 South opponents on the slate. The next four weeks: Arizona, Stanford, ASU, UCLA.

But now is the perfect take to stop, look back and take stock of the first half of the Cougars’ 2015 football season:

OFFENSE:

MVP: QB Luke Falk

There are several other worthy candidates but Falk has completed 72.3 percent of his passes, is on pace to break WSU passing records and his passing efficiency ranking has been remarkably consistent. There are things to nitpick: he’s held the ball too long at times. But would you rather endure a sack or a rushed throw and interception?  Falk has thrown just four picks in 243 attempts – and when you compare those four picks to his 21 TDS and 2,371 yards, it’s the biggest reason why the Cougs are two wins from bowl eligibility at season’s midpoint.  Falk has also proven to be unflappable. The officiating at the end of the Oregon game saw him about as animated as he gets. But while that would have in turn caused many a quarterback to tense up and fail, Falk instead ensured the Cougars stormed back and broke the Ducks’ will. Add it all up and it has Cougar fans, legitimately, thinking big for what’s to come in the second half of the season.

Unsung hero: Gerard Wicks

With apologies to Gabe Marks and the o-line, the biggest boon offensively this year has been the run game and Wicks leads the team in rushing yards. Of course, it’s not only the run yards themselves but what the threat -- now a truly legitimate threat -- represents for the Cougar passing game. While 288 hashes at midseason might not sound like much, consider Wicks’ sterling 5.76 ypc, and that he’s already topped his rushing total from last season (234). Wicks is quicker, faster and gaining the corner in ways he didn’t last season -- he lowers his shoulder at the end of virtually every run whether he’s near the sideline or in the open field. And he’s improved his hands as a receiver with 23 receptions for 116 yards. (In all of 2014, he had but 16 grabs and 76 hashes).  Give it up not only for Wicks (and Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington) but also Jim Mastro. The Cougars’ running backs coach has developed the young, rising trio and with even more riches to come next season with James Williams coming off his redshirt season, Washington State's 'backs are on a steep upward glide path.

Key stat: Red Zone Offense, t-29th. 

The run game (plus Dom Williams and Marks’ ability to get open in the end zone with six TDs each) has enabled Washington State soar in this category from last season, when they were ranked 82nd.  The other big factor has been the Cougar o-line. They haven’t been perfect by any means, but they have been pretty darned impressive at times (see Rutgers, Oregon State).

Key question: Can WSU up their offensive production still more with the toughest part of the schedule to come?

As great as the Oregon win was, WSU was inconsistent on offense over long stretches during regulation. The Cougs, despite being 4-2, have yet to come close to putting a full game together. The half-empty view headed into the second half: the defensive competition gets a lot tougher and that could spell trouble. The half-full view: As good as the Cougar O has been, imagine what it might look like if/when they play to their potential for four quarters -- and, WSU's offense is on the rise, so bring on all comers.

DEFENSE:

MVPs: Darryl Paulo, Peyton Pelluer, Shalom Luani

Paulo turned the corner last season and is second among d-linemen on the Cougs this year in tackles with 20 stops. Pelluer, once tabbed too slow and stiff by a recruiting analyst to be even a decent starter in the Pac-12, is on pace to top the century mark in tackles (54). He and fellow ‘backer Jeremiah Allison (46) have been as good a 1-2 punch at linebacker as the Cougs have seen in a while. Everyone knew Luani was a monster hitter but few knew he was such a ball hawk, his three picks lead the team. Luani, a third-year junior but a first-year Cougar, also learns quickly from his mistakes: after his shoulder tackles against Oregon were ineffective, you saw him wrap up far better against OSU. And it can be pretty much guaranteed you won’t see a celebratory flip into the end zone, and resulting 15-yard penalty, again from Luani.

Unsung hero: Hercules Mata'afa

Every time he comes in off the bench, Mata’afa makes something happen on the d-line. It might not always show in the stat book but Mata’afa has blown up a large number of plays. The 6-2, 242-pound second-year freshman is nowhere near what he’s going to be physically by the end of his career but his speed and natural strength have been a challenge to the offensive lines trying to block him this season. Despite not starting, Mata’afa is among team leaders in tackles for loss (5.0) and sacks (2.5).

Key stat: Rushing Defense, 109th. 

Washington State has improved on defense, probably even more than the stats would indicate. But their inability to stay at home and seal the edge has been legion. An aggressive mentality like the one Alex Grinch and the defensive staff are preaching will result in some over-pursuit, but not to the degree seen in the first six games.  WSU gets to show how much they’ve learned here with two highly effective running teams to open the season’s second half: Arizona and Stanford.

Key question: Can WSU bring more pressure without compromising coverage or ability to stop the run?

If WSU can improve their ability to bring effective pressure in the second half, even just a little bit, all other boats will rise. But opposing quarterbacks have frequently had all day to throw for long stretches. Cougar defenders, frustratingly, have not wrapped up or held an edge nearly enough.  That said, they’ve cut back on penalties compared to last year and they’ve come up biggest when it mattered most. They’re creating more turnovers and while poor when it comes to third downs, they’re No. 21 nationally in fourth down defense and are just outside the top 50 when it comes to passing yards allowed.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

MVP: Erik Powell

The Cougs’ kicker has hit seven of his 10 kicks and is 4-5 between 30- and 49-yards. He’s had eight touchbacks (opponents have nine against the Cougs). Honorable mention: Dylan Hanser. He’s on all four of the big units (KO, KO return, Punt, Punt return) as well as the  field goal unit.  He has nine tackles, eight of them solo stops, and every one has been key.  

Unsung hero: Kaleb Fossum, holder.

Fossum -- at a position no one pays attention to – has been excellent.

Key stat: Net punting, 117th.

You could really take your pick here: net punting, punt return defense, kickoff return defense, they’re all ugly. The frustrating thing for Cougar fans, and no doubt players and coaches, is that they’ll do things right on four special teams plays - and then the fifth is a disaster. On that plus side, however, the return game is doing nicely and not getting enough ink because of the special team defensive woes. True freshman Tavares Martin is third in the Pac-12 in kickoff return yardage and 25th nationally (25.5 ypr). Marks needs a few more attempts to be ranked but his punt return average right now slots him fifth in the Pac-12 and 39th nationally (8.8).

Key question: Can WSU play with more consistency on special teams?

Washington State has not carried special teams practice over to the games, not in terms of focus nor playing to their capability. They’ve shown flashes, but those have always been followed by mental lapses.  There is nothing wrong with the schemes or coaching – you can see that in practice and you can see it in games, the players have been put in the right position to make plays. As with just about everything, a big success on one special teams play can be contagious. The Cougs desperately need to catch themselves some of that.

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