Mike Leach has a four-game winning streak vs. UO, six-game losing streak to UW
Editor's note: The fifth in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.
Mike Leach’s ship was supposed to sink in the standings after the head pirate lost a four-year starting quarterback, a talented defensive coordinator and a handful of key players to the NFL.
Instead, Washington State — after being picked to finish fifth in the North Division — sailed to 11 wins, the most in school history, and finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll, the highest among Pac-12 teams.
Gardner Minshew, the unheralded East Carolina graduate transfer, parlayed his lone season in Pullman into being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If Leach can find a successor to run his Air Raid offense with the poise of the mustached Minshew, the 2018 Pac-12 offensive player of the year, the Cougars will likely exceed outside expectations again and compete for their first division title.
Washington State is picked to finish fourth in the North in the preseason Pac-12 media poll.
“We’re always the underdog, and it will always be that way, but it’s always fun being that,” Cougars junior left guard Liam Ryan said at Pac-12 media day. “You go into a game being the underdog, you know what to expect. A lot of people will throw a little shade at you, but we love it. We embrace the shade, we embrace the hate.”
Ryan is one of the four returning starters on the offensive line, which helped Minshew lead the FBS in passing (367.6 yards per game) and also paved the way for 24 rushing touchdowns.
Max Borghi, who scored 12 touchdowns as a freshman, is quickly emerging as one of the Pac-12’s best running backs.
“Max came into our place with a lot of confidence, like he belonged there and could play,” Leach said. “Everybody knew he could rush the football. He was able to block and protect remarkably well for a true freshman last year, which is critical.”
Seven wide receivers with at least 20 catches return, led by junior Tay Martin (685 yards, eight touchdowns) and Dezmon Patmon (816 yards, five touchdowns).
So who is going to captain this talented crew?
Redshirt seniors Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley are the most experienced quarterbacks in Leach’s system. Sophomore John Bledsoe, redshirt freshman Cammon Cooper and true freshman Gunner Cruz are also on campus.
Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud, the two-time FCS offensive player of the year (Walter Payton Award winner), is the most likely candidate to be the next Minshew.
“Dedicated, hard-working player. Smart. Student of the game,” Leach said of Gubrud, who passed for 9,984 yards and 87 touchdowns at EWU. “He looked good in spring, but we had a lot of guys look good in spring. It will be very competitive at that position.”
Guburd was only 14-for-36 passing for 231 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions during the Eagles’ 59-24 loss to Washington State last season.
But in the 2016 opener, Gubrud threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns — including 206 yards and three touchdowns to current Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp — to lead EWU to a 45-42 upset of the Cougars in Pullman.
Gubrud, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior from McMinnville, also led his team with 77 rushing yards and a touchdown during the memorable performance at Martin Stadium.
“I do remember that dude, him and Cooper Kupp were killing us,” Ryan said. “Cooper Kupp had like 200-something yards and like three touchdowns. Then I remember Gage, the little white kid, just running a 50-yard touchdown on us straight up the middle. So I was like, ‘Who the heck is that kid?’
“I didn’t expect him to end up coming here at the end, but he’s a great player. He’s really smart and really talented and he has a shot to prove it.”
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did a phenomenal job last season replacing Alex Grinch, who is now the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
The Cougars must replace standout linebacker Peyton Pelluer and defensive end Logan Tago. The NCAA took away Jalen Thompson’s final year of eligibility in June, and the all-Pac-12 safety was selected in the NFL supplemental draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Claeys will retool around defensive lineman Will Rodgers (7.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks), linebacker Jahad Woods (82 tackles, 3.0 sacks) and safety Skyler Thomas (76 tackles, two interceptions).
“I think we keep improving,” Leach said. “We’ve won more (Pac-12) games than anybody else the last three years. We’ve just got to keep doing the same things we’re doing, just do them better, keep improving.”
If the Cougars can handle a tricky nonconference road game at Houston and the Pac-12 opener at home against UCLA, they should be 4-0 entering the Sept. 28 game at preseason Pac-12 favorite Utah.
Washington State, which has won four consecutive games against Oregon, visits Autzen Stadium on Oct. 26.
Last year’s Apple Cup loss played in a blizzard cost the Cougars the outright North Division title and gave eventual Pac-12 champion Washington the tiebreaker.
Leach’s program will try to end its six-game losing streak to Washington on Nov. 29 in Seattle.
“Against UW, we come out to win, we come out to play hard, it just never goes our way,” Ryan said. “So hopefully this season it goes our way.”