Washington State must catch lightning without elite receivers

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

The Pac-12 North is a less forgiving place, which means the Washington State Cougars will have to be better in quality just to replicate last year’s eight-win regular season.

Oregon – a team Wazzu walloped a year ago – has Willie Taggart and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who contained the Cougs a year ago at Colorado.

Stanford got blasted by Washington State in 2016, but the Cardinal became their normal, dependable selves in the weeks following their drubbing against Wazzu. They’ll want revenge this year, and will probably be good enough to give Mike Leach’s team a fight this time.

Oregon State took a big lead over WSU a year ago. The Beavers couldn’t hold that advantage, but they’re likely to be even better than their 2016 iteration.

Oh, and then there’s the defending Pac-12 champion from Seattle, which thumped Washington State in yet another season under Chris Petersen.

That’s just the North, too.

Washington State plays Boise State out of conference and USC in the Pac-12 South. Colorado might not be great, but the Buffaloes should still be good.

Mercy? None of it appears on the Wazzu schedule this autumn. The Cougars were good last year, but if they play at a 2016 level against this imposing 2017 slate, they’ll probably finish 7-5.

That’s enough bad news, right? Wrong.

Washington State’s air-raid passing attack under Leach and returning starting quarterback Luke Falk will miss the two receivers who were so essential to the success of the 2016 offense: Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. The two gym rats – “first to enter and last to leave” at practice – were obsessed with playing their best. Their footwork, shown in dazzling tap-dance sideline receptions throughout the 2016 season, reflected the extent to which they were willing to sacrifice for the team.

That spirit must infuse the 2017 Cougar team – wide receivers, yes, but everyone else on the roster. Mike Leach has made Washington State relevant at a place where it’s extremely hard to win in college football. In order to stay relevant, lots of players will have to play above expectations. The receivers will gain the spotlight, but the no-glory gruntworkers will be just as essential to the cause this fall.

Washington State manhandled Stanford in Palo Alto a year ago. This wasn’t a finesse-oriented joyride in which the Cougars pitched and caught their way to a track meet-style funfest; they reared back and punched the Cardinal in the mouth. Given that Stanford entered the 2016 season having won three of the past four Pac-12 titles, that 42-16 statement opened a lot of eyes.

In this offseason, every Cougar coach and player must realize how much of a template that Stanford game must remain in 2017.

Washington State’s lack of elite returning receivers can be compensated for by the return of Falk, a tough-as-nails quarterback who gives this team a chance to be great. Falk can “throw his receivers open” instead of relying on them to do all the work on pass routes. He has absorbed multiple injuries over the course of his career, so his ability to play in pain exists beyond any and all questioning.

The Cougars’ path to success, then – in the face of a daunting schedule – requires them to protect Falk. The offensive line will face more pressure to perform than any other unit on the 2017 roster… except one: the defensive line.

October 15, 2016: Pullman, WA: UCLA senior quarterback Mike Fafaul (12) is brought down by Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa in the Pac-12 game between the UCLA Bruins and the Washington State University Cougars. (Photo by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

FanRag Sports colleague Wendell Barnhouse rated the top returning defensive linemen in the Pac-12 for 2017. His top choice: Hercules Mata’afa. One man who deserved a lot of credit for Mata’afa’s improvement last year was Joe Salave’a, but Wazzu’s defensive line coach accepted the same position at Oregon under Willie Taggart. Many have noted the negative effect that move could have on WSU recruiting, but in the meantime, the defensive line must adjust to the coaching staff reshuffle. Mata’afa has to find a way to become even more of a terror for opposing quarterbacks.

Jake Browning (Washington) and Justin Herbert (Oregon) exist in the division. Brett Rypien (Boise State) is a prime gunslinger the Cougars will oppose in non-conference play. Sam Darnold (USC) and Steven Montez (Colorado) will greet the Cougars in the crossover-division portion of the slate. There are far too many good quarterbacks on the 2017 schedule for WSU to play modestly good defense. “Above-average” probably won’t cut it this fall; the Cougars must demand a “well-above-average” pass rush to slow down offenses throughout their season.

Washington State (save for the season-opening loss to FCS member Eastern Washington) largely exceeded expectations last year. However, when the Cougs ran into the league’s two division champions in the final two weeks, their defense couldn’t stand in the arena. They allowed 83 points – 38 to South champion Colorado and then 45 to North champion Washington. If WSU needed to know what it had to shore up in 2017, those two games delivered the answer.

The Holiday Bowl face-plant against Minnesota was hardly a barrel of fun, but bowls are unique chemical cocktails. The Colorado-Washington finish showed the Cougars how they measured up against the best in the Pac-12. When WSU plays USC and Oregon in consecutive weeks this upcoming season (at the end of September and the start of October), the Cougars will see how far they’ve come.

They’ll hope their distance traveled exceeds the many miles they covered in 2016.

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