PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State hasn't had a winning season in nine years, the longest streak of futility in team history.
The Cougars are counting on second-year coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense to end that streak by improving on last year's 3-9 record.
A veteran quarterback in Connor Halliday and a deep receiver corps will help, but a better offensive line is key to the team's hopes of success. Last year, the Cougars allowed 57 sacks, the most in the nation, while gaining only 349 yards rushing, last in the nation.
"Our offensive line has gotten better and better and better," Leach insisted. "They've improved at a faster rate than I thought they would."
Last year, the offensive line had only a handful of players who had ever played a down in college. It was full of former walk-ons, including senior center Elliott Bosch, who played every offensive snap and was honorable mention All-Pac-12.
A year later, the line is bigger and more experienced.
Also raising hopes in Pullman is a running attack led by sophomore Teondray Caldwell and junior Marcus Mason that figures to improve on the anemic rushing yardage the Cougars have posted in recent years.
"The biggest deal is we are able to run the ball," Halliday said. "That opens up everything for me and the receivers."
Halliday split the starting job last season with the graduated Jeff Tuel — neither player could solidify the job.
Six receivers who caught at least 22 passes last year are back, led by Brett Bartolone (53 catches), Gabe Marks (49 catches) and Isiah Myers (42 catches).
Washington State's last winning season was 2003, although the Cougars finished 6-6 in 2006. They have not won more than five games in a season since.
The Cougars will get an early assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, as they open the season Aug. 31 at Auburn, and then travel to Southern California for their second game.
Five things to watch at Washington State:
1. VETERAN RECEIVERS: Washington State's deep corps of wide receivers has been making spectacular catches at the Cougars' preseason camp. In addition to Bartolone, Marks and Myers, returners include Dominique Williams (34 catches, 546 yards), Bobby Ratliff (30 catches) and Kristoff Williams (22 catches). Vince Mayle, a 240-pound junior college transfer, has been impressive in training camp. Last year, the Cougars averaged 330 yards passing per game, and they figure to be just as effective this year.
2. HALLIDAY IN PULLMAN: Halliday, a junior, figures to start the season over redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca. Halliday last season completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,874 yards, with 15 touchdowns. But he also threw 13 interceptions, many by forcing the ball into coverage. Leach is not patient with such errors, and that could give Apodaca a chance for some playing time. Injuries can also be a problem for the slender Halliday, who is 6-foot-4, but very generously listed at 190 pounds. "I gorge myself when I eat," he said. "The biggest problem for me is if I go a day without lifting, I lose a couple of pounds."
3. OFFENSIVE LINE: Last year, a young and thin offensive line was a big problem for an offense that managed to score an average of just 20 points per game. The Cougars gave up an average of 4.75 sacks per game. Leach says this unit is much improved, with veterans including tackles Gunnar Eklund and Rico Forbes clocking in at 300 pounds. The guards figure to be Joe Dahl and Matt Goetz. Senior John Fullington will fight for playing time. The Cougars must produce more than the anemic 29 rushing yards they averaged per game last year, when they netted just 1.4 yards per carry.
4. PRONOUNCEMENTS OF LEACH: Last season, Leach said at different times that the performance of some players was "bordering on cowardice." He likened some players to having the competitive qualities of an "empty corpse." He railed against hangdog expressions of defeat on the sidelines. The colorful coach has long provided notebooks full of material for reporters, and there is no reason to believe that will not continue.
5. DEFENSE: Safety Deone Bucannon may be the team's best defensive player. The Cougars surrendered 33.7 points per game last season but figure to be better as many players return from a young unit. Linebacker Darryl Monroe and tackle Xavier Cooper were full-time starters last year as freshmen.
Predicted order of finish: Fifth in Pac-12 North.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org