Washington State hosts Eastern Washington in opener

BY foxsports • September 2, 2016

Washington State has reason to be wary about opening the season against an FCS opponent.

The Cougars were upset by Portland State in their first game last year and they start this season Saturday hosting regular FCS contender Eastern Washington.

Coach Mike Leach said there are no big lessons to be taken from last season's 24-17 loss to Portland State, which like Eastern Washington is a member of the Big Sky Conference.

''You have to come out as prepared as you can and play together the best we can,'' Leach said.

Washington State rebounded from the upset to finish 9-4 last year, and has most of its starters back in Pullman.

That includes quarterback Luke Falk, who threw for 4,566 yards and 38 touchdowns last season, and receiver Gabe Marks, who caught 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Leach said Falk doesn't have any ''glaring weaknesses'' but still has room for improvement.

''The best quarterbacks are the ones that are fairly good at everything and steadily improve the whole package,'' said Leach, who has been pushing Falk's candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.

Eastern Washington finished 6-5 last year, a down season for a program that regularly makes the FCS playoffs. The Eagles are more than three touchdown underdogs in Saturday's game.

Their most dangerous player is receiver Cooper Kupp, who gave up a chance to jump to the NFL to play his senior season. He won the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top FCS offensive player last season.

Kupp has made a specialty out of out-classing Pac-12 defensive backs. Last season, he caught 15 passes for 246 yards in a loss at Oregon. Two years ago he caught three touchdown passes in a loss at Washington. As a freshman, he caught five passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in an upset win at Oregon State.

Kupp has averaged 122 receiving yards per game, an FCS career record.

''He's a really good player,'' Leach said. ''He's had a very productive career.''

Kupp was a high school senior when Leach was hired at Washington State and sort of fell through the cracks in the blur of those early days, Leach said.

''We would have definitely liked him to walk on,'' Leach said, noting that Kupp has become bigger and faster as a college player.

''He's really impressive,'' Leach said. ''We probably should have taken him.''

Other things to watch when Washington State hosts Eastern Washington:

OPENING GAME BLUES: Leach has lost all four of his season openers as coach at Washington State, to BYU, Auburn, Rutgers and Portland State.

HELLO NEIGHBOR: Although the two programs are located in towns only about 70 miles apart, Washington State and Eastern Washington have only played each other three times - all victories for the Cougars. ''They are a Pac-12 opponent that's going to win a lot of Pac-12 games,'' Eastern coach Beau Baldwin said of the Cougars.

PASSING FANCY: Leach's Air Raid offense led the nation in passing at 389.5 yards per game last season, and returns eight starters. The Cougars also averaged 6.1 yards per carry on the ground.

IT'S 5 O'CLOCK SOMEWHERE: Game time is 5 p.m. at Martin Stadium in Pullman, as the Pac-12 has moved away this season from later starts.

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