Portland St.-Washington St. Preview
PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) The quarterback gets much of the attention in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. But the receivers are just as important, and Washington State will use an array of them in the season opener against Portland State on Saturday.
''We'll play eight of them,'' Leach said this week.
That's in addition to throwing often to running backs Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington.
Last season, the Cougars threw for a school-record 5,732 yards. Not one of those yards came from Gabe Marks, who red-shirted. But Marks figures to be one of the top passing targets this season, along with River Cracraft, Dom Williams, Robert Lewis and Tyler Baker.
Leach had declined during fall camp to say whether Luke Falk would be his starting quarterback, insisting the veteran was in a battle with Peyton Bender. This week, Leach announced that Falk would start against the Vikings. Falk filled in ably last season when starter Connor Halliday broke his leg in the ninth game of the season.
Leach declined to predict how many games he thought the Cougars would win this season, after going just 3-9 last year. But he did allow that this might be the most talented team in his four seasons in Pullman.
''Definitely in the offensive line and defensive line for sure,'' Leach said.
Portland State also finished 3-9, but they are an FCS team that plays in the Big Sky Conference. They figure to be overmatched in Martin Stadium, where they lost 59-21 last season. Portland State will pick up a $525,000 check for its efforts.
The Vikings are led by first-year coach Bruce Barnum, who is working on a one-year contract.
''It forces you to be mistake-free and play fundamental football,'' Barnum said of opening against Washington State. ''That's a challenge for us.''
Washington State has never lost to an FCS team, and the Cougars are looking for a much better start than last season, when they opened with upset losses to Rutgers and Nevada.
Portland State's quarterback will be junior college transfer Alex Kuresa, who threw for 2,300 yards and 25 touchdowns last season at Snow College. He also rushed for 592 yards and eight touchdowns. Kuresa beat out senior Kieran McDonagh, who has started 29 games for the Vikings.
Portland State rushed for 2,500 yards last season, and Steven Long (605 yards) is back.
Things to watch in Saturday's game:
RETURN WOES: Washington State hasn't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2003, or a punt for a touchdown since 2005. That may change this season behind explosive kick returner Tavares Martin and punt returner Kyrin Priester. They will be aided by blockers who will likely be bigger and faster than Portland State's tacklers.
LUKE WARM: WSU led the nation in passing offense last season at 477.7 yards per game, and doesn't seem likely to step back from that behind Falk, who threw for 1,800 yards and 13 touchdowns in relief of Halliday last season.
NEW DEFENSE: Washington State gave up 38.6 points per game last season, so Leach fired defensive coordinator Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch from Missouri. Grinch must improve a defense that ranked No. 97 nationally in total yards allowed and was largely blamed for the Cougars' poor record. Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning and receivers coach Graham Harrell are also new.
WARM SEAT: Leach has sparked plenty of interest in WSU football, helping push attendance to more than 30,000 per game. But he also makes more than $2.7 million per year, the best paid employee in the state, and has an overall record of 12-25 at WSU.
WILDFIRE: Washington State is offering free game tickets to people affected by the massive wildfires in the state this summer. The school is also offering one end zone ticket to Saturday's game to anyone who donates three food items or a case of bottled water, which will go to food banks in towns impacted by the fires.