The turn of the century seems like ages ago. The iPod and Microsoft Xbox were first being introduced to consumers, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were just being given a film adaptation, and reality television was starting to blossom. Washington State was also winning ten games a year.
If the idea of Washington State winning ten games a year seems like a distant memory to you, that is because in college football years it should be. Since the days of Mike Price leading the Cougars to back-to-back 10-win seasons before accepting a job offer at Alabama (that did not exactly play out well) the Cougars are now on their third coach since 2003. In the mean time much of the Pac 12 has since caught up or passed the Cougars in the Pac-12 pecking order. With the Pac 12 ushering in a new era with expansion and division play, the pressure to start winning games mounted across the conference. Washington State made a swift decision to cut ties with Paul Wulff after four years with marginal improvement each season. A day after removing Wulff as head coach the Cougars made a splash with the hiring of Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach known for his gun-slinging style of offense and defensive oversight.
Removing Wulff was not a popular move but bringing in Leach brought immediate national recognition around the college football map. Leach was a man who looked to get back on a sideline after a brief stint in television, and it was just a matter of who was going to offer him that opportunity. There is plenty of work to do at Washington State but whether or not the big splash will pay off for the Cougars could be years away from determining.
Today we continue our series of evaluations with a look at Leach's first season in Pullman.
What went right? As expected, Washington State under Leach passed the football a lot in 2012. The Cougars led the Pac 12 in passing with a conference-leading 3,965 passing yards and 330.4 passing yards per game. Leach switched up quarterbacks during the season in hopes of finding more consistency under center but Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel each had their ups and downs along the way. Tuel ended the season with 2,087 passing yards but some feel Halliday should have been the starter all season.
Cougars defensive back Deone Buchannon earned second team All-Pac 12 honors, as well as kicker Andrew Furney. Eight others earned honorable mention recognition by the Pac 12, proving that there was some talent to work with on the roster.
In a season that nets just three wins there are bound to be many disappointments on the field. While most of the season turned out to be a failure in terms of wins and losses, Washington State did score a victory in The Apple Cup by stunning rival Washington by a score of 31-28. The Cougars also hung relatively tough with No. 14 Oregon State (19-6), No. 17 UCLA (44-36) and No. 19 (and eventual Pac 12 champion) Stanford (24-17). Leach may not take much stock in these supposed moral victories though given the way the rest of the season played out.
This may still be a considerable work in progress, but there are some building blocks that appear to be in place for Leach in Pullman.
What went wrong? Just about everything else.
Although Washington State owned the Pac-12's highest passing total, they also turned the football over a lot. Washington State was one of two Pac 12 schools to throw 20 interceptions (21, USC had 20). A turnover margin of -9 was 11th in the Pac-12. The Cougars also ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (20.4 ppg), 12th in red zone offense (74.36%), 10th in scoring defense.
It is at this juncture we would say "At least Washington State wasn't Colorado," but the fact that the Buffs picked up their only win of the season at the expense of the Cougars prevents us from doing so. Colorado scored a 35-34 victory over Washington State in Pullman in late September. Despite the previously mentioned respectable losses for Leach and company, the Cougars also had a lump of poor showings.
BYU 30, Washington State 6. Utah 49, Washington State 6. Arizona State 46, Washington State 7.
Washington State has plenty of work to do heading in to 2013, but Leach will certainly want to fix the red zone offense. In just 39 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line the Cougars managed to score just 21 touchdowns (53.85%, second-lowest touchdown percentage in the Pac 12). In a division with the likes of Oregon and Stanford it is essential the Cougars capitalize on what few opportunities they will have. When Leach coached at Texas Tech the Red Raiders picked up a touchdown on 70.5% of their red zone trips (43-for-61) in 2009, but red zone offense was never actually Leach's strong point for as prolific of an offense he coached.
The season also had off-field distractions stemming from wide receiver Marquess Wilson suggesting players were suffering from physical and mental abuse from Leach and his staff. Wilson left the team burning the bridge on his way out but a Pac-12 investigation would eventually clear Washington State's program of any such allegation.
Where do things go from here? For Washington State there is still nowhere to go but up in 2013.
Washington State was able to put together a better overall class in Leach's first full year in a recruiting cycle in Pullman. Washington State's recruiting class was highlighted by the addition of four-star quarterback Tyler Bruggman, who should be Leach's project to build his offense around. The Cougars also focused on adding some depth in the trenches but there is still some considerable catching up to do in the Pac-12 when it comes to recruiting. The Cougs rank 10th in the Pac 12 according to the 247 Sports composite rankings. For comparison's sake, in-state rival Washington ranked third.
Any coach who took over at Washington State was going to need time to get things going. Leach brings a system and coaching style that needs that time to get a program in the cellar up to speed. Change was not going to happen over night but there were a number of reasons to be concerned about the lack of progress made in 2012. Nobody is calling for Leach's job nor was anyone expecting the Cougars to compete for a Pac 12 title right away, but there were some minor setbacks in his debut that are worth taking note of. Still, the future at Washington State appears to have some light at the end of the tunnel.
Mike Leach First-Year Coaching Grade: D
Photo credit: USA Today Sports