SPOKANE, Wash. – One of the lowest points of Washington State's disappointing season also set the stage for one of the bright spots.
Senior quarterback Connor Halliday led an offense that set numerous passing records before he broke his leg in the ninth game of the season, ending his college career. That opened the door for Luke Falk to become the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Cougars in a decade and he made the most of it.
In six total appearances, Falk threw for 1,859 yards, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he'll return next season as the presumptive starter.
Coach Mike Leach said the playing time this season "helps him a bunch."
Leach said much the same about the large number of freshmen who played during the season, which ended with a 31-13 loss to archrival Washington on Saturday night.
"There's a ton of kids that played earlier than they should have and will develop their skill," Leach said. "In the end it will help them. The experience will help them a lot."
Hopes were high for this season after the Cougars went to their first bowl game in a decade in 2013.
But they opened with consecutive losses to Rutgers and Nevada. Then they appeared to right themselves. They beat Portland State, lost by a touchdown to No. 3 Oregon and beat No. 24 Utah on the road.
A debacle against California followed, and the Cougars (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12) lost six of their final seven games.
Leach is already busy making changes. On Sunday, he fired defensive coordinator Mike Breske and outside linebackers coach Paul Volero. He elevated defensive line coach Joe Salave'a to assistant head coach.
Washington State's defense, which was a strength in 2013, was porous this season. The Cougars finished 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense, allowing 38.6 points and 442.2 yards per game.
In the 60-59 loss to California in Pullman, the Golden Bears scored touchdowns on all seven drives in the second half to pull out the win.
The defensive secondary also saw a lot of freshmen in action, and gave up a lot of big plays. Three different freshmen started at cornerback and two different redshirt freshmen started at safety.
"We just have to compete when we hit adversity and we didn't do that a lot of the time this year," said cornerback Daquawn Brown, the team's leading tackler. "That's what we've got to work on heading into this offseason, building that killer instinct to step on some teams' throats."
Breske came to Washington State in 2012 from Montana. Last year, the Cougars were second in the league in producing turnovers with 30. This season, the Cougars finished with just three interceptions and five fumbles recovered.
Volero also came to WSU with Leach in 2012. He previously coached at Central Michigan and then spent two years coaching high school football in Key West, Florida, where he established a rapport with Leach.
Salave'a is a good recruiter and WSU's defensive line played well this season.
Of the original nine members of Leach's coaching staff, only four are still with the Cougars. Special teams coordinator Eric Russell was fired earlier this season. The Cougars allowed a combined six punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns. Coaches Jeff Choate and Eric Morris left for other positions.
"I think we can coach better and we can play better," Leach said after Saturday's loss.