PROVO, Utah – Intercollegiate football at Washington State dates back to 1894, but football on the Palouse has never been the same since colorful Mike Leach took charge of the Cougars nine months ago.
Offseason media coverage of the Cougars was unprecedented, starting with the jam-packed ballroom and rollicking ovation that greeted Leach at his first press conference in December. Leach immediately endeared himself to Cougars everywhere by declaring it to be “stupid” for anyone to question his decision to go to WSU.
No wonder WSU has already scheduled a Mike Leach Bobblehead Day.
It all comes to a head today at 7:15 p.m. when WSU opens at BYU on ESPN.
WSU players are stronger, faster and better than a year ago. Leach’s innovative, pass-happy offense is the same one that routinely placed his Texas Tech teams among the national leaders in passing and total offense.
Most practices are closed to fans and media for the first time. Every game is on television for the first time. Longtime radio broadcaster Bob Robertson will have new sidekicks for the first time in years after Jim Walden was let go.
Martin Stadium has never looked better, thanks to a $65 million face lift that includes fancy suites with annual rental prices of up to $50,000. Hey, somebody has to pay for Leach’s five-year, $11 million contract – easily the most lucrative in school history for any employee.
That doesn’t even count a $25,000 bonus any time the Cougars beat the hated Huskies in the Apple Cup. That provision is thought to be another first at WSU.
Season ticket sales are up more than 3,000; athletic department donations have increased; and the home opener seems likely to be WSU’s first sellout in five years. The optimism of Cougar Nation is at its highest level in years, with a bare-minimum goal of playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
“Our goal,” said defensive lineman Xavier Cooper, the former Wilson High School standout said, “is a bowl game (this season) and one day play for a national championship.”
Leach, who authored a book and worked as a college football broadcaster for two years after his messy divorce from Texas Tech, had all 10 of his Tech teams go to a bowl game from 2000-09.
Leach is making no promises about a bowl appearance in his first season in Pullman. His stock answer on goals: “Win one game a week.”
The Cougars lack size, depth and experience on defense, but they do have speed, partly because of significant recruiting progress made in that area by the previous coaching staff. Unfortunately for Paul Wulff and all of his assistants, speed did not arrive fast enough to save their jobs after the Cougars went 9-40 (4-32 in the Pacific-12/10 Conference) during Wulff’s four-year run.
Despite getting a late start on recruiting, Leach and his staff have brought in more speed, including some smaller receivers who drew lukewarm interest from schools in other big-time conferences. Leach made excellent use of receivers of all sizes at Texas Tech, including current NFL players Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree.
Leach inherits a proven quarterback in senior Jeff Tuel and a potential All-American wide receiver in junior Marquess Wilson. Leach, never afraid to step outside the box, appears to have come up with at least three other key receivers by recruiting undersized freshman Gabe Marks, a possible starter; turning last year’s leading rusher, Rickey Galvin, into a slot receiver; and making an inside receiver out of 2011 starting tight end Andrei Lintz.
Sports Illustrated once anointed WSU “Quarterback U,” but Leach’s last eight teams at Texas Tech all topped the Cougars’ record of 343.3 passing yards per game in a season. Six of those Tech teams bettered the WSU record of 493.5 total yards per game. Both records belong to the 1997 team that played in the Rose Bowl.
The single running back in Leach’s offense is counted on to block, catch the ball and pick up solid yardage when Leach (the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) mixes in a running play here and there. Four receivers usually flood the field, with no tight end; a regular rotation of eight total receivers is common; and Leach’s playbook includes a good mix of quick, short passes and long bombs.
No offense can function well without good offensive line play, and the Cougars need major improvement there after ranking in the bottom five nationally in sacks allowed four consecutive seasons. Leach’s Texas Tech teams produced a number of NFL offensive linemen and gave up just 13 sacks in 2008 – 27 fewer than WSU allowed last season.
Leach, appraising WSU’s offensive line play, said: “Of all the groups on our team, I think that’s the one that’s improved the most. I think it’s also the area where we had the most room to grow.”
Leach is being paid $2.25 million a year – Wulff made $600,000 – to make certain the Cougars grow into a nationally respected program. Players say the new coaching staff has made them more confident (“We’ve never felt this before,” senior offensive guard Wade Jacobson said), and Leach has repeatedly praised his players (“They’ve worked extremely hard”) and assistant coaches (“The best coaching staff I’ve worked with”).
So far, so good.
A bowl game near a sunny beach in the dead of winter? Even better.
WASHINGTON STATE (0-0) AT BRIGHAM YOUNG (0-0)
7:15 p.m., LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah
TV: ESPN. Radio: 710-AM, 96.9-FM, 104.3-FM.
The series: BYU leads, 2-1. BYU won the last meeting, 50-38, in 1990 in Provo.
What to watch: The Mike Leach era of WSU football begins with a trip to his alma mater. Washington State lacks size, depth and experience on defense, and key lineman Xavier Cooper – although listed as a starting tackle on WSU’s depth chart this week – has often worn a protective boot or been limited to riding a stationary bicycle recently. BYU returns 29 seniors, including seven starters on each side of the ball, off a 10-3 team that beat Tulsa in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, restored to the starting lineup midway through last season after beating out former Skyline High School star Jake Heaps (now at Kansas), is a nifty scrambler with an adequate arm. “He’s a great leader,” WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “You can see how their football team responds to him.” Breske loves to blitz, so Nelson figures to get ample opportunity to show off his quick feet. “He did some crazy things last year,” Breske said, “but he’s definitely a great competitor.” BYU has a solid defensive front seven, but players have done very little tackling in practices, which may pose problems tonight against WSU’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense. WSU is unaccustomed to playing on natural grass fields like BYU’s.
The pick: Washington State 42, Brigham Young 35.
10Jeff Tuel (QB)6-3/221senior
Missed most of last season with injuries; 18 passing TDs in 2010.
86Marquess Wilson (WR)6-4/185junior
Set school records with 82 catches and 1,388 receiving yards last year.
89Travis Long (OLB)6-4/245 senior
Former defensive end now free to blitz as a buck linebacker.
20Deone Bucannon (SS)6-1/192 junior
Finished fifth in Pac-12 with 58 solo tackles last season.
13Riley Nelson (QB)6-0/199 senior
Part-time starter last year but still threw 19 TD passes.
2Cody Hoffman (WR-KOR)6-4/215 junior
Caught 61 passes last season – 10 for TDs – and averaged 24.4 yards on kickoff returns.
3Kyle Van Roy (OLB)6-3/235 junior
Led 2011 team with 15 tackles for loss, including team-high 7 sacks.
44Brandon Ogletree (LB)5-11/228senior
Third-year starter led team with 76 total tackles in 2011.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer