Leach believes Washington State has no glaring deficiencies

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Washington State coach Mike Leach, fresh off two consecutive bowl game seasons, says his Cougars appear to have no glaring deficiencies this season.

In other words, the Cougars are more than just quarterback Luke Falk, who returns for his senior year after throwing for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last season.

''We have to be better everywhere, but I don't see one spot where we're terrible at,'' Leach said.

Washington State comes into this season after a deflating conclusion to a strange 2016 season. The Cougars opened with losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State. Then they won eight games in a row, including seven consecutive Pac-12 games. They closed by losing their last three, including the Apple Cup to rival Washington that gave the Huskies the Pac-12 North title, and a shocking 17-12 loss to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. Washington State finished 8-5 overall, 7-2 in the Pac-12.

''We just didn't finish. I think that we allowed things that are out of our control to affect us and I think we just started getting away from our game and not really focusing on the thing that got us our eight-game win streak,'' Falk said.

Falk will be the focus for most of the season. He goes into the year with a chance to re-write the Pac-12 record books for passing production.

Falk, a former walk-on, postponed entering the NFL to return for his senior year. He completed 70 percent of his passes last season, second in the nation.

''His best football is ahead of him,'' Leach said.

But the Cougars have little experience behind Falk, as Tyler Hilinski is the lone backup with any game experience. John Bledsoe, son of Washington State great Drew Bledsoe, joined the team this year as a walk-on quarterback.

Also gone are Falk's favorite receivers in River Cracraft and Gabe Marks, the only teammates in program history to catch at least 200 passes. But the cupboard is far from empty with the return of Tavares Martin Jr., Isaiah Johnson-Mack, Robert Lewis and Kyle Sweet.

Falk will be protected by one of the best offensive lines in the Pac-12, led by All-America guard Cody O'Connell, plus Andre Dillard and Cole Madison.

Washington State hopes to continue its defensive improvement under coordinator Alex Grinch, who is entering his third season. The Cougars allowed just over 26 points per game last season.

The secondary was porous last year, allowing 217 passing yards per game to rank in the lower half of the Pac-12. The returning members of the secondary had only two interceptions, both by Marcellus Pippins.

WINNING THE OPENER: For the third straight season, Washington State opens against a team from the FCS Big Sky Conference, and the Cougars will seek to avoid a third consecutive season-opening loss. They lost to Eastern Washington last year and to Portland State the year before. In fact, Leach is 0-5 in season openers at WSU. ''It's definitely a mental thing,'' linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. ''This year we're going to figure it out in fall camp.''

GROUND LEACH: While the Cougars may be primarily known for Leach's Air Raid offense, last year they displayed a potent ground game as well. That is expected to continue this season. Washington State averaged 120 rushing yards per game last season, with 23 rushing touchdowns, but averaged barely 20 run attempts per game.

Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks combined for 1,634 rushing yards last season, and also caught 125 passes for 1,014 yards.

''If you add up the yards, we had the most productive backs in the league,'' Leach said.

LABORS OF HERCULES: Defensive end Hercules Mata'afa has led the team in sacks the past two seasons, and also has one of the best names in college football. He is on the preseason watch list for the Nagurski Trophy given to the defensive player of the year.

KEY GAMES: The Cougars open the season with five consecutive home games against Montana State, Boise State, Oregon State, Nevada and a huge showdown with Southern California. The other home games are Oct. 21 versus Colorado and Nov. 4 versus Stanford.

PREDICTION: Washington State was predicted to finish third in the Pac-12 North. That would appear to be the right place for the Cougars, although don't be surprised if the Pac-12 North is again decided by the Apple Cup.


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