Five questions: The Spokesman-Review’s Jacob Thorpe on WSU

UCLA will play at the Rose Bowl for the last time this year at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, hosting a Washington State team that had turned itself around over the course of two months. WSU has already become bowl eligible, but is seeking to ruin the Bruins’ Pac-12 South hopes and further cement this as Mike Leach’s most successful season in the Palouse. The Spokesman-Review‘s Jacob Thorpe answered five questions about the resurgent Cougars.

1. Washington State lost to Portland State and nearly lost to Rutgers. How did this same group of players nearly upset Stanford on the way to what is now a 6-3 record?

Heading into this season, there were many pieces in place for the Cougars to show significant improvement: returning all five offensive linemen, a veteran receiver corps, lets of returners on defense.

But WSU also had a new defensive coordinator who had never had the reins to his own defense before, and a sophomore quarterback in Luke Falk with just three career starts under his belt.

Falk did not exactly put up Air Raid numbers in the nonconference games, throwing for 303 yards or less in two of WSU’s first three games. But he hasn’t thrown for less than 389 yards since and the WSU offense has seen its scoring average rise from 28.3 points per nonconference game to 39.3 against Pac-12 opponents.

The offensive uptick has coincided with the defense finding its footing under Grinch, making the Cougars a much more dangerous team than they were at the start of the season.

2. Mike Leach-coached quarterbacks always put up big numbers, but are often dismissed as system guys. How does Luke Falk compare to “Air Raid” predecessors such as Connor Halliday?

While Falk doesn’t have Connor Halliday’s bionic arm, he may be a better pro prospect than most of Leach’s QBs. At 6-foot-4, he’s got a good frame and is athletic enough to eat up some yards on the ground if defense’s forget to account for him as a rusher. Falk’s real strength is his accuracy, however, and he’s completing more than 70 percent of his passes.

3. The Cougars don’t run much, but their yards per carry are up from 1.97 in 2014 to 3.46 through nine games this fall. What’s behind the uptick?

Experience. Not only did all five starting offensive lineman return from 2014, but so did both running backs who received significant carries. In fact, the Cougars added to their backfield with Keith Harrington, who redshirted last season. Harrington is a more elusive runner than Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks and is averaging 7.1 yards on his 30 carries.

4. First-time defensive coordinator Alex Grinch became, at 35 years old, the highest-paid assistant in Pullman at $425,000. Has he lived up to expectations?

I’d say most fans will tell you he’s exceeded them. There have been very tangible improvements under Grinch, such as WSU having already collected 16 turnovers in nine games after accumulating just eight all last season. Even more impressive, the WSU defense that gave up 41.9 points against conference opponents in 2014 is giving up a much more respectable 33.2 points per game against Pac-12 teams in 2015.

5. Washington State has hired two different head coaches since the last time it beat UCLA. What would a win over the Bruins this weekend mean for the program’s bigger picture?

A win in Los Angeles is always a recruiting boon for a program like WSU that relies heavily upon tapping into the Southern California talent pool. And topping UCLA in the same season the Cougars knocked off Oregon and took Stanford to the wire would reinforce the idea that the Cougars now belong among the conference’s healthier programs. But most importantly, a win on Saturday guarantees the Cougars their first winning season since 2003.

Generating a pass rush could be key to UCLA stopping WSU’s “Air Raid.”
— UCLA redshirt freshman Kolton Miller is making an impact on the Bruins’ veteran offensive line.
— UCLA receiver Jordan Payton has history with WSU’s Gabe Marks.
— They have a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy, but are the Bruins are becoming a more disruptive defense?