2016 season preview: Washington State Cougars

After a 9-4 2015 season, can Washington State establish itself as a division contender this year?

| 4 months ago
(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

2016 season preview: Washington State Cougars


Washington State had an impressive 2015 season with a 9-4 record and big road wins at Rutgers, Oregon and UCLA. The Cougars have quickly become one of the better teams in the Pac-12. This season could stack up well for the Cougars as their toughest conference games come at home and they return their best players on each side of the ball.

Offense

Head Coach Mike Leach always has a high-powered offense but his present quarterback Luke Falk has displayed tremendous poise under pressure and an ability to perform well late in games which makes the Cougars’ a difficult opponent to beat. Falk’s 69.1 adjusted accuracy percentage under pressure ranks No. 1 among returning FBS quarterbacks. Wide receiver Gabe Marks is one of the premier deep threats in the country and his 65.2 percent catch rate on deep passes (targets of 20 yards or more) ranks No. 1 among all returning FBS wide receivers. Wide receiver River Cracraft’s 68.5 percent catch rate in the slot ranks him No. 21 among returning FBS receivers. Running backs Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow return as well. The Cougars lost the left-side of their offensive line but returning right guard Eduardo Middleton’s +16.3 pass blocking grade is the highest mark among all returning FBS guards.

[More: Why Luke Falk will be a top-10 QB in 2016]

Defense

The Cougars are known for their offense but their defense has talent at every level. Hercules Mata’afa is the team’s best pass-rusher. Defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale’s 4.6 run stop percentage ranks No. 6 among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles. Inside linebacker Peyton Pelluer’s is solid in coverage and his 9.5 run stop percentage ranks No. 4 among returning Pac-12 inside linebackers. Shalom Luani is one of the conference’s better coverage safeties and his 19.2 coverage snaps per reception ranks No. 4 among returning Pac-12 safeties. The Cougars’ defensive success will rely on the development and production of key players such as Mata’afa and Luani.

Biggest star

Quarterback Luke Falk led the Cougars to huge road wins in 2015 and threw for 4580 yards and 38 touchdowns. He demonstrated good accuracy to all parts of the field and his 78.7 adjusted completion percentage ranks No. 1 among all returning FBS quarterbacks. We expect Falk to match or exceed his 2015 numbers and emerge as a top-10 quarterback.

Luke Falk Passing Map

Under-the-radar player player to watch

Reserve defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa had 7 sacks, 9 hits, and 21 hurries on 229 pass rush snaps in 2015. It will be interesting to see what Mata’afa can do in 2016 with increased snaps as his 12.9 pass rush productivity rating ranks No.1 among returning Pac-12 front-seven defenders.

Bottom line

Quarterback Luke Falk and several key offensive pieces return from last year’s high-powered unit. Their schedule stacks up favorably with games against Oregon, UCLA and Washington all at home. If the Cougars offense can build on their 2015 performance and defensive players continue to develop they will be Pac-12 North contenders in 2016.

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