For the first time in 12 years, the Washington State football team has a spot in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings.
The Cougars (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) are in the midst of a great bounce-back season after a rough year in 2014. They are bowl eligible for the second time in the past three seasons and still have an outside shot at the Pac-12 North Division championship.
Buffzone.com caught up with Stefanie Loh, who covers Washington State for the Seattle Times, to get her take on the Cougars.
Buffzone: After going 3-9 last season and losing to Portland State in the opener, how restless were the fans? And, how dramatic has the change in their mood been as the Cougars have gone 7-2 the last nine weeks?
Loh: I thought the reaction to Portland State was overblown. WSU is not the first team to come out flat in its season opener and lose to an FCS team. But the fact that the Cougs have rebounded from that speaks volumes about the character of this team. There's been marked improvement from week to week, and that's heartening for a team that has struggled to string wins together in recent years. So even though the fans were disgruntled and reactionary after the first loss, I think everyone has calmed down since and been pleasantly surprised to see what WSU has accomplished this season. The Cougs are the surprise of the Pac-12.
Buffzone: On the field, what has changed for this team to go from a Week 1 disappointment to, now, in the Top 25?
Loh: They're playing with more precision. WSU had some communication issues on both sides of the ball against Portland State; they've cleaned that up. Plus, the defense has really found an identity under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch. They're playing with effort and have been very effective at minimizing scoring even though they still seem to give up yardage. On the offensive side of the ball, the O-line did a poor job through the first quarter of the season, but has since rebounded. Luke Falk has hit his stride in the offense and he's very comfortable working that system. He spreads the ball out, and WSU has gotten a lot of big plays from a variety of different receivers. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, however, has been the evolution of the run game. WSU did not have a single 100-yard rushing performance in 2014. It has had four so far this year, and that added run threat has helped the Cougars keep defenses much more honest, which has opened up some options offensively.
Buffzone: Quarterback Luke Falk has put up some insane numbers. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Loh: Falk's biggest strength is his ability to stay cool under pressure. All coaches preach the importance of never getting too high or too low, but Falk truly lives that. He always sounds the same regardless of whether the team has just won or lost a game, and the Cougs' offense takes its cue from him. As a quarterback, he's got a knack for reading defenses and making adjustments. He's not afraid to check down to his backs if there's nothing up field, and he works WSU's screen game very effectively. He also has a quick release and a strong enough arm to make all the throws he needs to. His biggest weakness is a propensity to hold onto the ball a smidgen too long at times, which thus translates to sacks for loss of yardage.
Buffzone: Defensively, the Cougars are giving up about 10 fewer points per game this year. What are they doing better on that side of the ball?
Loh: Forcing turnovers. WSU's defense had eight turnovers in 2014. Through the first 10 games of 2015, the defense has come up with 18. The defense has bought in to what Grinch is preaching: high effort and accountability, and it's paying off. WSU's pass defense is much improved, thanks to cornerbacks with a little more experience, and the addition of freshman starting CB Darrien Molton. Safety Shalom Luani has also been an impact playmaker in his first season at WSU. . Put that together with a defensive line that's winning a lot of one-on-ones, and two very motivated linebackers in Peyton Pelluer and Jeremiah Allison, and it's as if WSU has a whole new defense this year.
Buffzone: In your opinion, what does Washington State have to do on Saturday to walk out of Martin Stadium with a win?
Loh: Score quickly and early, then don't take the pedal off the metal. Defend the lead and pile on the points. WSU hasn't had many blowouts. This is a chance to prove that they can dominate.
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.