In his second year, Mike Leach's overhaul of the Washington State football program is showing impressive signs of development in all areas from defense to the passing game and, surprisingly, the run game. As a result, Washington State should qualify for its first bowl game since 2003.
Leach inherited the team from Paul Wulff, who went 9-40 overall and 4-32 in conference play, good for the worst win-loss record of any coach in Cougars history. After experiencing some initial bumps during his first season where his team went 3-9, Leach has seemingly begun righting the ship and put the Cougars in position for their first six-win season in seven years.
The Cougars schedule should help Leach earn two more wins and qualify for a bowl berth. Over the course of the next two months, Washington State will play Oregon State, No. 2 Oregon, Arizona State, Arizona and Utah before taking on No. 16 Washington in the Apple Cup.
Washington State will likely lose against Oregon and Washington barring a major upset, but the Cougars have the potential to defeat the remaining four teams, or at least go 2-2.
Excluding Stanford's 55-point outburst, Washington State's defense has been playing much stronger than last year, allowing just 14 points per game. Including the Stanford game bumps the average up to 20.8 points per game, which is still good for 35th in the FBS.
The defense's best game was against Southern California, ranked 25th at the time. Thanks to a pick-six and a blocked field goal, the Cougars won 10-7 and held the Trojans to their lowest point total in the past 10 years after averaging 45.4 points per game against the Cougars in their last seven meetings.
Even the run game is performing twice as well. Although ranked 122nd in the nation with 58.7 yards per game, which is characteristic of Leach's Air Raid, the run game has chalked up 352 yards with six touchdowns compared to the 349 yards and six touchdowns earned throughout the entirety of last season.
Although no Mike Leach-coached team will ever win a game by running the ball, the run game is strong enough to keep opposing defenses honest and refrain from blitzing multiple defenders or dropping seven or eight into coverage.
The most important factor behind Washington State's development is the improved quarterback play of Connor Halliday who spearheads the eighth-ranked passing attack in 2013, according to ESPN.
Halliday split time last season with current Buffalo Bills backup Jeff Tuel. Combined, Halliday and Tuel completed 58.2 percent of their passes for 3,965 yards, 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
In six games, Halliday has surpassed his performance from last year.
Leach's Air Raid relies on excellent quarterback play. In his first season as the full-time starter, Halliday is proving that he is capable of coordinating Leach's aerial attack.
In his most recent game at California, Halliday completed 41 of 67 passing for 521 yards, three touchdowns and one interception as Washington State routed California 44-22. Halliday bounced back nicely after a lackluster performance two weeks ago against Stanford, setting a school record and climbing to second place in completions and yards. Only former quarterback Alex Brink threw for more yardage in a single game.
"We came out with our hair on fire, but we've got to be able to keep rolling and putting up points for our defense," Halliday said during a post-game interview (via Lew Wright of All Coug'd Up) after leading the Cougars to victory against California. "We had some looks to throw the ball out there today and we had the ball for a long time. That's going to happen in this offense."
If Halliday can cut down on the rate he throws interceptions, he might become as prolific as previous quarterbacks in Leach's system, like Graham Harrell.
ESPN writer Ted Miller agrees that Washington State will earn entry into a bowl game, projecting that the Cougars will play in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on December 21 against Mountain West (No. 4). Another potential landing spot is the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against either BYU or ACC (No. 9).
Anything less than a bowl game would be a disappointment. Next year, though, Leach's program should begin its ascent to levels similarly experienced by Leach's former team, Texas Tech.
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