Defense is key to Washington State improvement

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Washington State coach Mike Leach doesn't have much trouble getting his teams to score in the Air Raid offense.

The problem has been stopping the other guys.

Leach decided to make a change after last year's 3-9 team gave up an average of 38.6 points per game. He dumped defensive coordinator Mike Breske and brought in Alex Grinch from Missouri to replace him.

Grinch will be tasked with improving a defense that ranked No. 97 nationally in total yards allowed and was largely blamed for the Cougars' poor record - the team ranked seventh in the nation in total offense.

''Defense and special teams, we've got to improve there,'' Leach said. ''The good news is we've got a lot of people back.''

That includes a veteran defensive line that was decent against the rush last year and figures to be deeper than in previous years.

The defense brings back six starters, and the secondary figures to be much improved from last year. Charleston White, who led the Pac-12 in pass breakups per game last season, is back.

Leach believes Grinch's system will be easier for the players to grasp.

''I think he's got a very clear message,'' Leach said. ''Everybody knows their role. ... In the past we were more scattered than ideal. There was too much blending of philosophies.''

The Cougars' two Pac-12 wins last year came on the road against Utah and Oregon State, and they were tied with College Football Playoff runner-up Oregon late in the fourth quarter in Pullman before losing 38-31.

Things to watch for at Washington State this season:

NO HALLIDAY: Record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday, who led the nation is passing last year at 430 yards per game, has graduated. Sophomore Luke Falk appears to be beating out redshirt freshman Peyton Bender for the starter's job.

Falk started three games after Halliday broke his leg late in the season against Southern California. Falk threw for 1,859 yards and 13 touchdowns in six games in relief of Halliday.

''Biggest thing is (Falk) has a lot of composure and stability and the ability to go out there suddenly and play like he belonged there,'' Leach said.

RUNNING ON EMPTY: Washington State rushed for an FBS-low 478 yards last season, and the leading returning rusher is Gerard Wicks, who gained just 234 yards. Their longest run from scrimmage was 26 yards.

But Leach is satisfied with his run game. The team has three veteran running backs and a veteran offensive line that should ensure decent production, Leach said.

PULLMAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: Leach never stops extolling the virtues of Pullman, a college town of 30,000 people far from the state's major population centers.

He doesn't subscribe to the theory that recruiting there is tough.

''Once they get there and see it, and they see the landscape and atmosphere of a college town where you just step our your front door and everybody you're going to school with right there, (that) creates a level of energy that's very much unique,'' Leach said.

NO SEATTLE: Washington State will no longer schedule an annual home game in Seattle, where many of its alumni live. All six home games this year will be in Pullman. Leach noted that many alumni enjoy the opportunity to return to campus for a football game.

''They've got the whole process, the whole tailgating thing and look forward to as many weeks of that a year as possible,'' Leach said.

The Seattle game drew some people who didn't ordinarily attend WSU football games, Leach said, but it also cost them fans who preferred to go to Pullman, Leach said.

LUKEWARM SEAT: Leach has sparked plenty of interest in WSU football, helping push attendance to more than 30,000 per game.

And he took the Cougars to a bowl game after his second season. But he also makes more than $2 million per year, and has an overall record of 12-25 at WSU.

NICKEL FOR YOUR THOUGHTS: The WSU defense this year will add a nickel back position, which is typically a fifth defensive back in lieu of a linebacker in passing situations.

For the Cougars, the position is expected to more like a linebacker spot than part of the secondary, in part because the player will nearly always be on the field.

Darius Lemora, who started 10 games at safety as a freshman last season, seems set to start at the nickel position.

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