Washington State had a truly great season in 2003. They had gone to the Rose Bowl in 2002 and had just finished their third ten win season in a row. They beat the #5 ranked Texas Longhorns (and future NFL quarterback Vince Young) in the Holiday Bowl. Their future was so bright they needed to wear shades. Then reality hit like a cement truck.
Since then the Cougars have gone 41-93 and have had 11 straight losing seasons. Their lone bright spot was going to the 2013 New Mexico Bowl (they lost and still only finished 6-7). Washington State fans need to look up "win" on Wikipedia to understand what one is.
In 2012 Mike Leach was hired to turn the ship around. Unfortunately he hasn't lived up to the hype. Leach has gone 3-9, 6-7 (and a bowl game) and 3-9 in his three seasons in Pullman. Not exactly what was expected. It wasn't like he took over a good program. WSU was a train wreck. When he arrived at WSU there were very few talented players on the roster. The ones he got were totally shell-shocked by the loses. But still, it's Mike Leach, the guy who went to 10 bowls in a row at Texas Tech.
So, going into his fourth year at WSU, what does Leach need to do to turn this team into a winner? His specialty, the offense, is pretty good. They ended up 7th in the nation and 2nd in the PAC-12 behind Oregon last year. Their red zone efficiency and points per game (31.8 ppg) could be a little better, but overall this is a very good offensive team. And those problems can be quickly cured by fixing our first big need, the special teams.
Problem: Special Teams
The first big need for Leach to fix is the special teams play. All phases of special teams were atrocious. They only made 65% of their field goals. The field goal kicking was so bad that Leach all but abandoned field goals in the second half of the season. The kickoff and punt teams were also terrible, ranked at the bottom of the PAC-12 and the nation. To make matters worse, they didn't just give up yards they also gave up touchdowns (6 TD's, leading FBS teams).
The combination of lost points on field goals and giving their opponents great field position (and TD's) hurt the Cougars all year. If they could have only made two field goals a game they could have climbed to 37.8 points per game, good for 3rd in the PAC.
Leach made the first needed change after the California loss last season. After giving up back to back kickoff returns for touchdowns and missing a field goal from inside the 2-yard line that would have won the game, Leach fired special teams coach Eric Russell. It will take time to see if his replacement, Eric Mele, will fix the issues but they can't be any worse under his tenure. A change of coaches was necessary and should make a difference.
The Cougars also addressed the poor field goal kicking by signing kicker Matt Abramo. He is a 3-star recruit who made 10-of-12 field goals last year at Casa Grande High School in California, with a long of 46 yards. The fact that Leach offered a scholarship to a first-year kicker shows he is serious about improving the special teams situation (WSU typically has walk-on kickers).
We won't see how Mele will fix the kickoff and punt return problems until next season. One thing that was apparent from watching last year's games was the lack of speed and hard-hitting on special teams. Due to a lack of depth, Leach will have to be convinced to allow some of the starters to play on special teams. It is the only way they will get better. On a good team with a lot of great players, the backups can be relied on to make up the bulk of the special teams. WSU does not have that luxury and some of the starters will have to play special teams if the Cougars want to improve next year.
Or should that be "lack of" defense. The Cougars were 99th in the nation on defense last year. They gave up 38.6 ppg. They couldn't stop anybody. In order for this team to win they need to be at least average on defense. In the California game last year the Cougars racked up 812 (!) yards of offense and 59 points. But their defense gave up 60 points and they lost. That is completely nuts. It doesn't matter how good Leach's offense is if his defense is that bad.
The Cougar defense played poorly at all positions. They didn't get sacks (8th in the PAC-12) or tackles for loss (10th). They couldn't defend the pass (11th) or the run (they gave up 4.07 yards per carry, 8th). The worst of all is turnovers. They only caused 8 turnovers all season (3 INT's and 5 fumbles). This led to a turnover margin of -17, dead last in the PAC-12. Compare that to Oregon, who gained 21 fumbles and 13 INT's. A defense needs to create turnovers to be effective.
Just like on special teams, Leach made the first step by firing defensive coordinator Mike Breske at the end of the season. After a season of completely uninspired and lackluster play, the change had to be made.
Alex Grinch was brought in to revamp the Cougar defense. A first-time D-coordinator, it is unknown what style of defense Grinch will install at WSU. That might be an advantage for the Cougs and may catch some opponents by surprise, at least at the beginning of next year.
The defensive coordinator wasn't the only one to leave. Starting linebacker Darryl Monroe has transferred, D-tackle Xavier Cooper left early for the NFL, and starting cornerback Daquan Brown was dismissed from the team for unknown reasons. While some are lamenting the loss of three starters, a shake-up was necessary for this team and should end up being a good thing in the long run. Things can only get better.
Leach also signed 13 new defensive players. Several of them should make an early impact, including four highly rated junior college players. JC players Jeremiah Mitchell (defensive end), Shalom Luani (safety) and Aaron Porter (linebacker) are all 4-star recruits. Cornerback Treshon Broughton is a 3-star JC player. All four should see immediate playing time, if not starting. Besides the JC players, incoming 4-star freshmen Thomas Toki (defensive tackle), and safety Kameron Powell could make a difference for the Cougars next year.
This influx of new defensive talent should pay dividends in the near future for the Cougs.
Problem: Lack of big plays
One of biggest obstacles Leach faces is a lack of big plays. On this Cougar team you just didn't see the 80-yd TD pass, or the big-time sack. The defense only had 3 INT's all year, and there were virtually no big returns on kickoffs or punt returns. Rarely did you see a defensive player deliver a punishing hit (remember Deone Bucannon?). This was a team that was severely lacking in big plays or even big hits.
It's not just the points you score or the points your defense prevent that matter, it's the manner in which you do it. Long, easy TD's and dramatic 3-and-outs matter. A team needs big plays to get excited about the game and their chances of winning the game. A big offensive play scores quick, easy points. A big defensive stop dramatically prevents points. Even a big hit provides excitement and inspires confidence. Washington State simply did not have enough big plays to win many games last year.
Leach clearly understands the game of football and the emotions in it. Big plays are huge psychologically to keep your team's confidence high. Replacing the D-coordinator was a big step that became necessary due to the lack of confidence on the defense. This team could have survived being 99th in the nation if they would have gotten some more turnovers or sacks. Oregon was 89th in the nation in total defense, but 1st in turnover margin at +23 and 20th in sacks. The big plays made the difference for Oregon and they can for Washington State too.
By dipping into the JC ranks Leach has found four players that can possibly become playmakers on defense immediately, which is exactly what the Cougars need. Freshmen Toki and Powell may also fit into that mold. Another player that could be a big surprise is T.J. Fehoko, a defensive end who led the nation in sacks as a high school junior (34) and followed that up with 21 sacks and 34 tackles for loss as a senior.
Bringing in new talent won't solve the problem entirely. Leach and his staff will need to continue to develop playmakers from the current squad, especially on the special teams. But the influx of new, exciting players can only help the situation.
Leach has recognized the weaknesses of his team (the defense, special teams and the lack of big plays) and has made a concerted effort to address them. Special teams and defense both have new coordinators, and Leach has signed one of the best recruiting classes in a decade, which should produce some great players. The combo of new players and new coaches should get Leach and the Cougars back to a bowl game quickly.