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CU opponent preview: Mike Leach has Washington State rolling

Buffs play Cougars on Oct. 19 in Pullman, Wash.

Washington State Max Borghi, left, gets past Colorado linebacker Rick Gamboa on Saturday.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Washington State Max Borghi, left, gets past Colorado linebacker Rick Gamboa on Saturday.

A year ago, expectations were low for Washington State’s football team.

After losing the program’s all-time leading passer and featuring the Pac-12’s least experienced team, the Cougars seemed destined for their worst year since 2014.

Instead, head coach Mike Leach and quarterback Gardner Minshew directed the Cougars to a program-record 11 wins.

Minshew is gone after his one spectacular season on the Palouse, but Leach has got his program humming along entering his eighth season. This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on Washington State, which will host the Buffaloes on Oct. 19 in Pullman, Wash.

After years of struggles, Wazzu has become a consistent winner under Leach. The Cougars are one of only four teams in the conference to reach bowls in the last four years, along with Stanford, Utah and Washington. They have more wins in the last four years (37-15) than in the 10 years before that (36-85 from 2005-14).

To keep the train rolling, Leach will have to fill some major holes again, including at quarterback.

Minshew replaced four-year starter Luke Falk last year and became a local hero in Pullman and a Heisman Trophy contender. The Cougars are hoping the one-year model works again this year, as Gage Gubrud comes in as a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington.

Gubrud was a two-time finalist for the FCS player of the year award, but missed the final 10 games last year with an injury. He also missed spring ball with the Cougars because of an ankle injury. Considering he has yet to get on the field with the Cougars, Gubrud is hardly solidified as the starter. Inexperienced seniors Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley had good moments in spring.

“We’re definitely going to give (Gubrud) the opportunity to (start), and right now everybody’s got the opportunity to,” Leach told The Athletic this spring.

Regardless of who wins the job, it’s a good bet that Leach’s Air Raid offense will put up big numbers again. The Pac-12’s top scoring offense last year (37.5 points per game), Wazzu has averaged 30-plus points per game in six straight seasons.

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Washington State receiver Dezmon Patmon, left, stiff arms Colorado safety Nick Fisher on Saturday at Folsom Field.

The Cougars are loaded at receiver, where the top three from last year – Dezmon Patmon, Tay Martin and Easop Winston – are all back, along with a talented crew behind them. Running back Max Borghi also returns after a stellar true freshman year, and the Cougars got a boost at the position this summer with the addition of former Notre Dame backup Deon McIntosh. Four returning starters on the line will help, too.

Defensively, the Cougars have a lot of holes to fill, but they’ve stockpiled some talent in recent years. It used to be easy for opponents to score on the Cougars’ defense, but they’ve allowed less than 28 points per game four years in a row. Last year, they yielded just 23.3 per game – their best number since 2006.

Few will expect the Cougars to match last year’s 11 wins or make a serious run at the Pac-12 North title, but given the results of the past four years, it would be foolish to count them out.

“I think (the success of 2018) illustrates possibility, and you’ve got to continue to be hungry to elevate more,” Leach told The Athletic. “We’re an eyelash from being even better. We’ve got to kind of maintain that point of view instead of embracing any level of satisfaction.”

Washington State Cougars

Date with CU: Oct. 19, time TBA, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.

Head coach: Mike Leach, 8th year (49-40; 133-83 career)

Series: Tied 6-6

Cougars in 2018: 11-2, 6-1 in Pac-12; Beat Iowa State, 28-26, in Alamo Bowl

Returning starters: 12 – 7 on offense, 5 on defense

5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):

RB Max Borghi, So. (72 att., 366 yards, 8 TD; 53 catches, 374 yards, 4 TD)

QB Gage Gubrud, Sr. (transfer from Eastern Washington)

WR Tay Martin, Jr. (69 catches, 685 yards, 8 TD)

WR Dezmon Patmon, Sr. (61 catches, 816 yards, 5 TD)

WR Easop Winston, Sr. (52 catches, 654 yards, 8 TD)

5 defensive players to watch:

NT Lamonte McDougle, So. (transfer from West Virginia)

DT Will Rodgers, Jr. (23 tackles, 4 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT)

LB Willie Taylor III, So. (31 tackles, 4 sacks)

NB Skyler Thomas, Jr. (76 tackles, 3 PBU, 2 INT)

LB Jahad Woods, Jr. (82 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT)

Notable: Washington State has won the last two against CU by a combined score of 59-7. CU’s last two trips to Pullman resulted in losses of 27-3 and 28-0. … Eight players who caught at least 20 passes last season are back for Wazzu. … Junior Liam Ryan, who started all 13 games at left guard in 2018, shifts over to left tackle. … The Cougars have four starters back on the offensive line, including center Frederick Mauigoa, who has started 26 consecutive games. … The Cougars added much-needed depth and experience at running back a few weeks ago when it was announced Deon McIntosh will join the team as a blueshirt. He ran for 368 yards and five touchdowns as a backup at Notre Dame in 2017 but was then dismissed from the team. He ran for 1,150 yards and 17 TDs at East Mississippi Community College last year. … Nose tackle Lamonte McDougle started nine games as a true freshman at West Virginia in 2017 before transferring last year and sitting out the season as a redshirt. … Safety Jalen Thompson, who was one of the best in the Pac-12, lost his final year of eligibility this summer with an NCAA violation, and entered the NFL supplemental draft. … Kicker Blake Mazza (10-for-15 FG, 60-for-62 PAT) and punter Oscar Draguicevich (45.7 average) both return.