Five questions: Seattle Times’ Stefanie Loh on Washington State

Washington State was a popular sleeper pick in the Pac-12 North, then the Cougars lost to Eastern Washington in the season opener. Six weeks later, they’re back to where people thought they might be: in the thick of the conference race. The Seattle Times’ Stefanie Lowe answered some questions about the Cougars, Luke Falk and the deal with WSU’s suddenly potent run game. 

1. The Cougars started the year with a loss to Eastern Washington. Now they’re hot off two impressive wins against Oregon and Stanford. What has been the key in turning things around?

To this day, the Cougars themselves don’t seem to be able to pinpoint exactly why they started the season so flat. However, several things have been key to the turn around. For one, the defense seems to have come together and coalesced after a messy Game 1 that saw them give up 515 yards and six touchdowns against EWU. The return of Shalom Luani — who missed the first game due to a concussion and an ongoing legal case — at free safety was significant. He’s one of the cogs of the defense, and his steadying presence has helped the Cougars find their footing. Offensively, the Cougars’ running game has emerged in the last two weeks, and that has given WSU some much-needed balance to open up the offense. But in terms of intangibles, I think the Cougs might have come out the gates a little complacent after last year’s success. They’re had a history of starting slow, and seem to play better when their backs are against a wall and they are the underdogs once again. So from that standpoint, falling to an 0-2 start really lit a fire under them.

2. WSU is not known for running the ball, yet the Cougars did so effectively and efficiently Idaho, Oregon and Stanford. Why was the running game featured more in the past three games and do you think it’ll continue? 

The evolution of Luke Falk as a quarterback and the development of some new offensive linemen have been instrumental in the rise of the Cougars’ running game. Left guard Cody O’Connell has been a run blocking force for the Cougs. It took them a couple of games for the offensive line to gel and work together, but they have it going now, and O’Connell has helped to open massive holes for the backs. Then, there’s the development of Falk, who recognizes the skill his three running backs possess, and has gotten to a point where he trusts in their abilities to get chunk yardage. He’s not afraid to check down to them when necessary, and sometimes opts to do so instead of taking a risky stab downfield. Finally there’s the development of the backs themselves. Running back coach Jim Mastro has said that redshirt freshman James Williams is the most talented back he’s ever coached, and Williams’ athleticism and ability to make people miss, coupled with Jamal Morrow’s versatility and Gerard Wicks’ power game has given the Cougs a plethora of weapons at running back. And since the three are all so close in terms of their ability, WSU can always find a back to get open even if one or two of the others are having an off day. They play the hot hand, and so far it’s worked well.

3. Alex Grinch has the WSU defense on a sharp upward trajectory since taking over before the 2015 season. How has he been able to find such success so quickly?

Grinch has not been afraid to use young talent. He started cornerback Darrien Molton as a freshman last year, and has done the same with strong safety Jalen Thompson this year. In addition, he’s an excellent teacher who can communicate defensive concepts to his players in an effective, succinct way. He’s also done a lot to change the culture on the defense. Grinch exudes energy and has gotten the entire defense to buy into his concepts because he’s shown that he can equip them with all the tools they need to be successful on Saturdays. I think that’s a big part of it. He’s given this defense the confidence it needs to be able to compete with Pac-12 teams, and he’s backed it up with results. Now, a year and a half into his system, the players trust him and trust the process, and it’s paying dividends.

4. The defense bottled up Stanford, what is the greatest strength of the defensive unit now?

The pass rush has come a long way from the first couple of games. Against Stanford, WSU showed they have the ability to blitz and rattle the quarterback from a number of different spots on the field. They’ve totaled five sacks in the last two games, and defensive end Hercules Mata’afa has been particularly impressive. He had a sack against Oregon and a sack against Stanford and five tackles for loss in the past two games combined. As a whole, the defense has also shown its ability to force turnovers and come up with big plays. They play with a lot of energy, and has gained confidence from week to week.

5. Where has Luke Falk improved the most from last season?

His management of the offense. Falk has connected with 12 different receivers this season, and has been adept at reading coverages and putting the offense in positions in which they can succeed, whether that involves calling the correct front, making the right read or checking down or changing the play when he needs to. He’s operating at a high level of efficiency and leads the nation with a 74.1 pass completion percentage.