No. 24 Washington St sheds losing ways, earns respect
Washington State safety Taylor Taliulu remembers the lean years, when the Cougars were barely a footnote in the Pac-12 standings.
Now No. 24 Washington State (7-2, 5-2 Pac-12) is the surprise team of the league and aiming for a prestige bowl game.
''It's honestly been a roller coaster,'' said Taliulu, a senior whose Washington State playing career has included three losing seasons before this campaign. ''Ever since my freshman year, it's like a total 360. All the hard work, I'm happy to see it paying off now.''
Washington State has secured its first winning season since 2003 and is ranked for the first time since 2006, and the winning is expected to continue. The Cougars are 15-point favorites on Saturday against Colorado (4-7, 1-6) in Pullman.
Featuring the nation's top passing attack, along with an improved bend-but-don't-break defense, the Cougars have won five of their past six games, and are coming off a 31-27 last-second win at UCLA. The cardiac Cougars have won three games in the closing seconds this year, something they couldn't pull off in the recent past.
''We're definitely special, but as a team we expected nothing else,'' said linebacker Peyton Pelluer. ''In the forefront of our minds is to be great and bring this program some glory again.''
The season began disastrously for the Cougars as they lost 27-24 to Portland State of the FCS in the opener, the first loss to a lower-division program in Washington State history. They've been rolling since, highlighted by last-second wins at Rutgers, Oregon and UCLA. They lost to No. 15 Stanford on a missed field goal in the final seconds.
''It's nice to see this team grow and get these wins we've been hungering for for so long,'' Pelluer said.
Star receiver Gabe Marks said the team's goal is to win its final two regular-season games, and a bowl game, to reach 10 wins.
That goal is not exactly consistent with coach Mike Leach's philosophy of concentrating only on winning the next play, and letting the future take care of itself.
Leach said the Cougars need to ignore the national ranking and the buzz around the program.
The success ''is a byproduct of focusing on individual plays,'' Leach said. ''We've got to understand that what we have been doing up to this point is all that's important now.''
Leach's exciting Air Raid offense has been a natural fit at Washington State, a school with a proud passing tradition.
Quarterback Luke Falk has thrown for 4,067 yards and a team-record 35 touchdowns, besting the mark of 34 shared by Ryan Leaf and Connor Halliday. Washington State leads the nation with 414 yards passing per game.
Marks, the leading receiver in the Pac-12, caught the winning touchdown in the closing seconds at UCLA. He leads a bevy of talented receivers who are carving up opposing defenses.
Leach thinks Falk, a former walk-on, should be a candidate for the Heisman Trophy this year.
When you consider who has elevated their team the most, Falk is an obvious choice, Leach said. ''Everybody needs to vote for Luke Falk,'' he said.
The defense, which cost Washington State numerous games last year, has improved under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. They still give up 30 points per game, but the Cougars average 35.
Last year, the defense didn't have a clear identity, and the players appeared apathetic, Leach said. This year's team has received clear messages from coaches, and has responded by forcing 18 turnovers, a vast improvement over last year's eight.
''They believe in Grinch completely and have bought into everything he's tried to instill in them,'' Marks said.
The bottom line is the Cougars are a team to be reckoned with, Pelluer said.
''We are not just irrelevant like they have seen us in the past,'' Pelluer said. ''It's taken awhile for teams to realize, `Yeah, these guys will punch you in the mouth.'''
While the Cougars are not eligible for the Rose Bowl because of tiebreaker scenarios, they are eyeing one of the league's top bowl games, such as the Alamo or Holiday.
Marks said they have earned that much.
''People are not going to give us respect until they absolutely have to,'' Marks said. ''And now they have to.''