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NCAA Football Preview - Washington State Cougars

By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Of the numerous Pac-12 programs that made coaching changes last season, the one made at Washington State was furthest from accomplishing the desired effect. While Jim Mora pushed UCLA to the Pac-12 title game, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham got Arizona and Arizona State, respectively, to bowl games, Mike Leach really struggled in Pullman.

Led by the former Texas Tech coach, the Cougars did start the season at 2-1. However, both wins came by thin margins (24-20 against Eastern Washington, 35-27 at UNLV) and the loss was a 30-6 rout to BYU. The Cougars would look back fondly on the first three games though, as they lost eight straight games from there. The season was at least somewhat salvaged when the Cougars won a thrilling 31-28 overtime contest to take home the Apple Cup against Washington.

All in all though it was a pretty dismal year for the Cougars, especially when the all-time leading receiver left the team in November after accusing Leach and the staff of verbal, mental and even physical abuse. Investigations by the program and league proved to clear Leach's name but it didn't make up for the failures on the field.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Part of the reason Washington State struggled was because of a lack of consistency at quarterback. Leach perfected his Air Raid system during his time at Texas Tech, but one of the most important aspects of the system was having terrific play at quarterback.

The tandem of Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday did not provide that. Tuel completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 2,087 yards, but had as many touchdowns (eight) as interceptions. Halliday was more willing to take chances which led him to complete just 52.2 percent of his pass attempts and be intercepted 13 times. although he also threw for 15 touchdowns.

This season the job will be solely Halliday's as Tuel has moved on. Improving on his decision making will go a long way for the Cougars.

"(Halliday) had a great spring, did a great job, what I've been impressed is as a leader he takes the team on his shoulders and he's one of the guys I think brings people together," Leach said. " The most significant role that a quarterback plays is enhancing the skills of the other players around him."

The Cougars have plenty of options that gained experience last year, while being thrown into the fire of the Air Raid. Brett Bartolone doesn't create many big plays (8.2 ypc) but his steady hands led him to a team-high 53 receptions in 2012. He and Isiah Myers (42 rec, 438 yards, 4 TDs) are the only returning starters at wideout. Gabe Marks (49 rec, 560 yards, 2 TDs), Dominique Williams (34 rec, 546 yards, 3 TDs) and Bobby Ratliff (30 rec, 399 yards) will all be in the mix as well.

Leach has never been a believer in the running game and that was clear last season. The Cougars finished with just 349 total yards on the ground. That total was by far the worst in the country and made Washington State one of just two teams in the nation not to have at least 1,000 yards rushing. Teondray Caldwell ran for 269 yards and returns to be a first-time starter in his sophomore year. Daniel Jenkins, who transferred from Arizona, will also compete for touches.

The offensive line play from the Cougars last season wasn't particularly strong either. In fact it was some of the worst in the country as the Cougars let up a national leading 57.0 sacks. There are four starters returning to the unit, but there could be a shake up after such dismal performances across the line.

DEFENSE: While the offense struggled to score, ranking 11th in the league (20.4 ppg), the defense didn't do much to stop foes. Washington State ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (33.7 ppg) and ninth in total yards allowed (42.9 ypg).

There are eight returning starters to the unit. The thought is that another year should turn experience into production.

The leader of the defense is safety Deone Bucannon. The senior led the team with 106 tackles, while also collecting four interceptions and eight passes defended.

"Deone Bucannon, that's what I pretend to see when I look in the mirror, when I shave so (he's) in incredible shape and we couldn't be more excited to see what (he) can do out there on the field," Leach said.

Casey Locker (60 tackles) fills the other safety spot, while Anthony Carpenter (48 tackles) is another returning starter for the secondary at cornerback.

The 3-4 alignment the Cougars generally use will also benefit from the return of three starting linebackers. Darryl Monroe is the anchor, coming off a season when he ranked second on the team with 80 tackles, 8.5 of which came for loss. Cyrus Coen had 60 tackles and was a threat against the pass, as he recorded three interceptions. Justin Sagote added 61 tackles from an outside position.

The defensive line loses a big piece with Travis Long (9.5 sacks) gone. That will mean defensive ends Xavier Cooper (3.0 sacks) and Ioane Gauta (3.0 sacks) will need to get better at breaking down blocks and rushing the passer. Both players have starting experience.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Both place kicker Andrew Furney and punter Michael Bowlin are back. Furney drilled 14-of-20 field goal attempts, including a 60-yard effort against Eastern Washington. Bowlin had 58 punts and averaged 41.9 yards per kick.

Caldwell was the top kickoff returner last season, bringing back 27 kicks an average of 25 yards. Bartolone is the frontrunner to take back punts.

OUTLOOK: It has been 10 years since Washington State made it to a bowl game. After a 3-9 finish last season it has also been 10 years since the Cougars have had a winning record. It would have been a lot to ask for Leach to turn all that around in one season but in year two, the expectation is that the team will at least threaten for postseason play.

A two-game road trip to face Auburn and USC won't make things easy to start. Washington State then faces an FCS foe in Southern Utah before finishing the non-conference slate against Idaho. The Cougars will then play Stanford to finish September. October features two road contests and two home games. The toughest of the group is the Oct. 19 contest at Oregon. Two of the last three games of the season are also on the road, including the annual Apple Cup showdown with Washington.

Even though it didn't seem like it, Leach did get his team to adjust to his unique system as the Cougars led the Pac-12 and finished in the top 10 nationally in passing yards (330.4 ypg). If Halliday cuts down on the turnovers and the receiving corps progresses the offense could be even better. Still there isn't much evidence that the Cougars will do any more than win a game or two more than last season.

08/20 10:56:38 ET

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