It’s been less than a week since Washington State finalized one of the most successful seasons in school history – and there’s a debate to be made for it being the most successful –with a 28-26 victory over Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl that gave the Cougars a program-record 11th win.
Now comes the waiting game.
Officially, WSU doesn’t kick off again for another 240 days, but it’s never too early to peer into the future. Even with a bold question mark at the most important position on the field, the Cougars will be targeting their fifth consecutive bowl appearance and should be in the thick of the Pac-12 North race again, even if they aren’t a favorite to win the division title.
In no particular order, here are 19 reasons to follow Cougar football in 2019.
1. Lamonte in the middle – They led the Pac-12 in sacks this season (35) and the Cougars may have been playing without the most talented defensive lineman on the roster. Nose tackle Lamonte McDougle was an ESPN Freshman All-American at West Virginia before he transferred to WSU, and though he couldn’t play a snap this season, the player who should start at nose tackle in 2019 occasionally partook in team periods – and often wreaked havoc when he did.
2. Cougars v. Cougars – Before WSU drew Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl, many predicted the Cougars would play another Big 12 opponent, West Virginia. The Mike Leach-Dana Holgorsen reunion didn’t happen then, but the WSU coach and his longtime pupil will square off after all. Leach’s WSU Cougars will play Holgorsen’s Houston Cougars on Sept. 13 at NRG Stadium.
3. Pass-catchers aplenty – WSU didn’t have a receiver named to the All-Pac-12 teams and it may have been the best compliment you could have given to the group. But the Cougars had seven receivers who caught 20 passes or more, seven that had at least 200 yards receiving and eight that caught a touchdown. All but one of the rotational receivers return in ’19.
4. Boobie and Borghi – One of them came a touchdown shy of tying the school’s single-season touchdowns record. The other one broke WSU’s freshman TDs record. Together, James “Boobie” Williams and Max Borghi combined to reach the end zone 27 times. They accounted for 1,817 all-purpose yards in 2018.
5. Another Duck hunt? – Four other times in school history, WSU has strung together four consecutive wins over Oregon. But the Cougars have never defeated the Ducks five times in a row. That could happen when the Pac-12 North rivals meet on Oct. 26 in Eugene. Oregon returns QB Justin Herbert and brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, and Mario Cristobal’s bunch will probably come in as the 2019 Pac-12 favorite.
6. Abe’s ascent – Leach has produced an All-American on his offensive line every year since Joe Dahl’s final season in Pullman. Abe Lucas, the right tackle from Everett who just wrapped up a stellar freshman year, could join Dahl, Cody O’Connell and Andre Dillard next season. Coaches often want their best blocker protecting the QB’s blind side, so don’t be surprised to see the 6-6, 281-pound Lucas shift to the other side of WSU’s line.
7. Offensive whizzes collide – Maybe more than any of their peers during the same era, Mike Leach and Chip Kelly have been responsible for modernizing college offense and inventing schemes and concepts that are still used in every part of the country, at every level. The offensive pioneers face off when UCLA visits WSU on Sept. 21.
8. Harris returns – Travell Harris played an integral role for the Cougars this year in the slot, but more so as a kick returner. His 27.6 yards per kick return ranked sixth nationally. With one kick return touchdown under his belt, Harris needs one more to become the school’s all-time leader.
9. Climbing the charts – Williams has a chance to crack a few more school records in ’19. The senior needs one more catch to break Jamal Morrow’s mark for career receptions by a running back (202) and 17 more to move past River Cracraft (217) for second on the list of all-time WSU receptions.
10. New-look Huskies – Losers of six straight Apple Cups, it’s unlikely the Cougars will be favored to beat Washington in Seattle next season, but the rivalry game will certainly look different without Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin in the backfield. Those two accounted for 14 Husky touchdowns in the last four WSU-UW games. So, maybe a glimmer of hope?
11. Pass happy – Who’s playing quarterback for the Cougars next season? Your guess is as good as Leach’s. But in his 17 seasons as an FBS head coach, Leach hasn’t had a team throw for less than 3,500 yards and 14 of those 17 teams have passed for 4,000 or more. It’s unclear who’ll be under center, but it’s almost guaranteed whoever it is will pile up the passing yards.
12. Safety net – The Cougars leaned on Jalen Thompson and Skyler Thomas to anchor their secondary, but the safeties also wound up being two of the team’s top tacklers – Thomas with 67 (third) and Thompson with 61 (fourth). Both players are back in the fold next season.
13. “D” up – WSU’s defense regressed between the 2013 and ’14 football seasons, but every year since, the group has improved – dramatically in some cases. In 2014, the Cougars allowed 38.6 points per game. That number improved to 27.7 in 2015, 26.4 in 2016, 25.8 in 2017 and 23.1 in 2018. Can the trend continue under second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys?
14. Secondary help – Needing to replace Darrien Molton and Sean Harper Jr., WSU inked four cornerbacks in the latest signing class – three of them from junior colleges – and playing the numbers game, at least one should make an impact in 2019. Will it be Daniel Isom? Derrick Langford? Shahman Moore? Or Armauni Archie?
15. Gunner’s gun – Even if he isn’t considered for the starting QB job, fans should see a spring practice or scrimmage for a glimpse of true freshman Gunner Cruz. At Casteel High (Arizona), the 6-5 signal caller passed for 30 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more as a senior.
16. More Woods – If Peyton Pelluer was WSU’s best defensive player this season, Jahad Woods may have been a close second. As a redshirt sophomore, he finished second on the team in tackles (73), but more important, was a turnover machine, forcing fumbles, recovering two while intercepting a pass. Without Pelluer, Woods becomes the captain of the linebacking corps.
17. Back home – The Cougars’ spring game returns to Martin Stadium in 2019. The annual scrimmage will be hosted in conjunction with “Gameday for Mental Health” in an effort to spread more information about mental health and wellness. The spring game had been held at Spokane’s Joe Albi Stadium the last eight years.
18. Martin dominance – Minus a few losses to their in-state rivals, the Cougars have been dominant on home turf. Not counting two Apple Cup defeats to UW, WSU has won 18 straight games on the Palouse.
19. Staff stability – It’s possible the Cougars lose an assistant coach or two during the offseason – such is the nature of college football, especially for an 11-win team – but if the 2019 staff isn’t identical to the 2018 one, it’ll look familiar at the very least.
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