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NCAA Football Preview - Washington State Cougars

By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Steady growth and incredible passing numbers have been the hallmarks of Mike Leach's first two seasons as head coach at Washington State.

Following a 3-9 campaign in his first year, the Cougars were much more competitive in Leach's second, finishing at 6-7, while adding in a bowl appearance, their first since 2003.

The year began with a tough 31-24 loss on the road to Auburn, a setback that looked much more impressive at the end of the season. The Cougars won their next three games, including a 10-7 triumph at USC, before falling to Stanford in a 55-17 rout. That loss was the start of a stretch of four defeats in five games for the Cougars, who recovered to beat Arizona and Utah before losing to hated rival Washington in the season finale. The efforts in the regular season were enough to warrant an invite to the New Mexico Bowl, where they fell just short against Colorado State (48-45).

As they enter their third year under Leach, the passing game should maintain its lofty standards, but the real area of interest is whether or not they can maintain the pace they have set for themselves in terms of improvement.

"I think it cracks the door open on what our potential is," Leach said of last season. "The biggest thing we need to do is the same things over and over again just do it a little better. I think our entire team thinks our season overall could have been better, so now we need to take all the things we learned from last year and improve on it this year."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Washington State has made no secret that its offense runs almost exclusively through the air. The Cougars ranked fourth in the country in passing yards last season (368 ypg), while compiling only 694 total rushing yards.

The Cougars will rely on the arm of Connor Halliday yet again this season. Halliday has slowly learned and developed a grasp of Leach's air-raid system, and he could be in for a tremendous season. Last year he threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing 62.9 percent of his pass attempts. One area Halliday does need to improve on is his decision making. He still had a tendency to force throws last season, leading to 22 interceptions. Cutting that total down could go a long way in helping the Cougars achieve their goals.

Halliday won't have to develop a rapport with a new group of receivers, as Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Rickey Galvin are all back. Marks led the team in receptions (74), yards (807) and touchdowns (7) last season. Cracraft (46 receptions, 614 yards, 3 TDs) and Galvin (39 receptions, 311 yards, 4 TDs) each made plays as well.

Making sure Halliday has plenty of time to watch a play develop is essential to Leach's scheme, so a largely retooled offensive line needs to come together quickly. Left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund are the only returning starters for the unit.

"I think the biggest is the offensive line because they're new faces. But they've had a really good spring and getting better all the time," Leach said. "They don't have a ton of game reps, but they're big, athletic people. So there will be some growing pains. But they are a talented group and we're excited to break them out this year."

Although the running game is an afterthought for Leach, the Cougars still have some skill in the backfield other than at quarterback. Marcus Mason (429 yards, 2 TDs) and Theron West are both solid options, with Mason a valuable asset in the passing game (52 receptions, 390 yards, 2 TDs).

DEFENSE: Like the running game, the defense can sometimes get lost in the shuffle for the offensive-minded Leach. Last season, the Cougars ranked outside of the top-100 in the country in total defense (458 ypg), in part because of the speed with which their own offense ran.

Hurting their efforts this year is the loss of All-American safety Deone Bucannon, who was the unquestioned leader of the team and was responsible for 6 interceptions and a team-high 114 tackles. He leaves behind a decimated secondary that has just one returning starter in Taylor Taliulu (54 tackles).

Luckily, the front seven has tons of returning talent. If they can keep the pressure on, it could help the secondary develop and improve.

On the defensive line, Xavier Cooper, Kalafitoni Pole and Destiny Vaeao are the recognizable names. Cooper had 13 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks last season, while Pole added a pair of quarterback takedowns and Vaeao tacked on 24 stops from the middle.

There is a lot of skill at linebacker. Kache Palacio (49 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) shows great drive in getting to the quarterback, while Cyrus Coen (60 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) also makes plays all over the field. Top returning tackler Darryl Monroe (94 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) could be the best of the bunch.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Cougars did not exactly put on a clinic on special teams last season. Mike Bowlin and Wes Concepcion split punting duties and neither averaged more than 40 yards per boot. Concepcion has the job to himself this season. Meanwhile, Erik Powell, a freshman, is likely going to take over at place kicker for the departed Andrew Furney.

Galvin was the primary kickoff returner last year, but the team still has to find someone reliable to bring back punts.

OUTLOOK: Prospects are bright in Pullman, with the Cougars coming off their first bowl appearance in a decade. Of course, optimism is high in every college town this time of year. Washington State has to make sure the good feelings carry on into the winter.

They play a neutral-site game in Seattle against new Big Ten squad Rutgers to open up the campaign, before traveling to face Nevada. A bout with FCS foe Portland State will serve as the final appetizer before the Pac-12 slate gets underway. The Cougars won't have much time to ease into it either, with Oregon the first league rival they face. They also visit Stanford during the year, but get a reprieve from facing UCLA. To end the campaign, the always contested Apple Cup (against Washington) will be decided in Pullman.

Last season's successes were marred a bit by ugly losses against the top teams in the Pac-12. If the Cougars hope to prove they can win as well as they pass, they will need to start taking down those types of squads. Otherwise, expect another fringe bowl berth and not much else.

08/22 10:53:50 ET