Preview 2014 - Washington State Cougars
Washington State QB Connor Halliday
Washington State QB Connor Halliday
Posted May 23, 2014

Preview 2014 - Mike Leach has the program back on track. Can it make more noise? (Getty Images)

Washington State Cougars

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 Washington State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

Head coach: Mike Leach
Third year: 9-16
Returning Lettermen
Off. 17, Def. 17, ST, 2
Lettermen Lost: 19
Ten Best Wazzu Players
1. QB Connor Halliday, Sr.
2. DT Xavier Cooper, Jr.
3. LB Darryl Monroe, Jr.
4. WR Gabe Marks, Jr.
5. WR Dominique Williams, Jr.
6. WR River Cracraft, Soph.
7. LB Cyrus Coen, Sr.
8. WR Vince Mayle, Sr.
9. CB Daquawn Brown, Soph.
10. BUCK Kache Palacio, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 28 Rutgers (in Seattle)
Sep. 5 at Nevada
Sep. 13 Portland State
Sep. 20 Oregon
Sep. 27 at Utah
Oct. 4 California
Oct. 10 at Stanford
Oct. 25 Arizona
Nov. 1 USC
Nov. 8 at Oregon State
Nov. 22 at Arizona State
Nov. 29 Washington

At long last, there's optimism in Pullman at the beginning of a season.

In just his campaign season at Wazzu, head coach Mike Leach led the program to six regular season wins and its first bowl appearance in a full decade. It's a promising start for a team that endured so much adversity in recent years. Leach has the Cougars well ahead of schedule and eager to become even more competitive in the league in 2014. The toughest part of the reclamation project is almost done, getting a beleaguered bunch of kids to believe they can compete in the Pac-12.

The 2013 season served as the ground floor on which Leach can build bigger and better things on the Palouse. The Cougars weren't merely bowl-eligible a year ago. They were genuinely competitive on a Pac-12 level, which hasn't happened in a very long time. From perennial doormats not long ago, Wazzu stunned USC at the Coliseum, routed Cal and added November victories over Arizona and Utah. Yeah, blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl stung. But it couldn't erase the progress the team made during the regular season.

This year, Leach is welcoming back QB Connor Halliday and just about every back and wide receiver who touched the ball in the passing game a season ago. And since success on this campus is tied so tightly to the performance of the Air Raid passing attack, there's a strong sense that the Cougars will be every bit as dangerous as they were in 2013.

Washington State will fill the air with spirals, breaking school records in the process. Leach wouldn't have it any other way. The development of the rest of the team, though, will dictate the Cougars' fate in 2014. On offense, the line is getting a major facelift. The defense is essentially starting over in the secondary, the biggest worry for a D that's already compromised. Coordinator Mike Breske will continue attacking the ball, even if it exposes the unit to big plays on the ground and over the top.

With Leach calling the shots, Washington State has come a long way in a very short period of time. The players have changed, from the way they practice to the way they perform on Saturdays. The coach and his Cougars now plan to forge ahead by making Pac-12 competitiveness and a December bonus game into perennial expectations in Pullman.

What to watch for on offense: The machinations up front. You want to slow down QB Connor Halliday? Get in his face, because he's prone to making poor decisions with the ball. The job of protecting Halliday belongs to an O-line that lost three starters, and is starting from scratch on the right side. All eyes will be on junior Jacob Seydel and redshirt freshman Cole Madison, who're vying for their first starting jobs. So chaotic is the situation in the trenches that even the returning starters, Gunnar Eklund and Joe Dahl, have switched positions.

What to watch for on defense: The new faces of a troubled secondary. First-Team All-Pac-12 S Deone Bucannon has graduated. So have starters Damante Hornton and Nolan Washington. The Cougars' best returning defensive back, CB Daquawn Brown, was managing legal problems before things got cleared up in mid-May. Wazzu is unsettled on the last level of the D, creating key opportunities for up-and-comers, like sophomore SS Isaac Dotson and untested freshmen cornerbacks Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White.

The team will be far better if… it stops being so careless with the ball. The Cougars were second in Pac-12 takeaways, yet were No. 10 in the league in turnover margin. The explanation? Connor Halliday threw more interceptions than any other FBS quarterback, and Wazzu lost 11 fumbles. This program can ill-afford to waste the big plays that are created by the defense. Yeah, protecting the ball will have to be a collaborative effort, but it's one that must be initiated by Halliday.

The Schedule: The Cougars will know where they stand and if they've improved right away with two interesting non-conference games to kick things off. Rutgers is now a Big Ten team, but that shouldn't matter too much considering the Scarlet Knight secondary was such a disaster last season and needs a lot of work. Nevada is dangerous on the road the week after. Getting Portland State is a bit of a breather and a break before diving head first into the Pac-12 slate with a huge showdown with Oregon in Pullman.

Getting USC and Arizona State from the South stinks, but there's no UCLA to deal with and going to Utah isn't all that bad. Going to Stanford will be rough, and a two-game road stretch against Oregon State and Arizona State late won't be fun, but the Apple Cup against Washington is at home along with the dates with USC and Arizona. If the Cougars can own the home advantage, it should be a great season.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Connor Halliday. Halliday is an imperfect quarterback. But as the triggerman of Mike Leach's Air Raid attack, he's no less than the most important player in Pullman. Halliday has gotten gradually better with each year in the pass-happy system, culminating in a record-setting 2013 campaign. When he's good, he's the prototypical gunslinger, scattering the ball to his eclectic and deep collection of hands. While the Cougars lost the New Mexico Bowl to Colorado State, Halliday played one of the best games of his career with six touchdowns and 410 yards through the air.

Best defensive player: Junior DT Xavier Cooper. Cooper is the one Cougar defender who can consistently move the line of scrimmage, even when commanding double-teams. He is not the garden-variety Wazzu lineman that gets bullied around the field. On the contrary, Cooper is an asset to the seven teammates behind him. The two-year starter gets a push and collapses pockets, limiting the time quarterbacks get to check down receivers. After being overlooked by All-Pac-12 voters in 2013, Cooper will play with a chip on his shoulder this fall.

Key player to a successful season: Halliday. Last year's gaudy, system-based numbers sort of obscured the reality that Halliday has to be a more efficient quarterback for the Cougars. Yes, he was third nationally in yards per game. But he was also first in interceptions, 91st in yards per attempt and 78th in passer rating. If Washington State is going to take another step forward, it's up to Halliday to bring more efficiency and consistency to the Air Raid offense.

The season will be a success if ... Washington State returns to the postseason. Last season was all about breaking through. This season is about proving that the program is here to stay. Leach and the Cougars can ill-afford any kind of regression, which would come in the form of a losing season that ends on Nov. 29. Wazzu wants to make a statement to its fan base and prospective recruits that bowl games are becoming the norm in Pullman.

Key game: Nov. 29 vs. Washington. Leach split his first two games with Steve Sarkisian. Now he turns his attention to getting an edge on Chris Petersen, the new man in charge in Seattle. Obviously, it's the annual Apple Cup, so the stakes and the intensity need no additional storylines. It's also a chance for Washington State to send a message to West Coast recruits that the Palouse is a viable option, especially for skill position players looking to become a part of a wide-open offense.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing yards per game: Washington State 53.4 – Opponents 187.4
- Passing yards per game: Washington State 368.0 – Opponents 270.8
- Takeaways: Washington State 30 - Opponents 35

- 2014 Washington State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players