WSU takes a right turn to Albuquerque

Washington State didn't just achieve a 6-6 record and earn its first bowl invitation since 2003 in Mike Leach's second year as coach, it did so despite playing a brutal schedule, the nation's eighth toughest, according to ESPN's Stats & Info.

The Cougars played the nation's No. 2 (Auburn), No. 5 (Stanford), No. 10 (Oregon), No. 14 (Arizona State) and No. 25 (USC) teams. They also played three other bowl teams (Oregon State, Arizona and Washington). They beat the Trojans and Wildcats -- on the road, no less -- and held serve when the schedule mercifully yielded weaker foes.

Heading into the Gildan New Mexico Bowl opposite Colorado State on Saturday, it certainly feels like the program is on an uptick, particularly after Leach's debut season fell well short of the high expectations he inspired upon his hiring. Year 1, in fact, felt like a disaster, with locker room dissension further tarnishing a 3-9 record, and some Cougars fans were fretting whether the future held much promise.

But Leach, as those who know him well knew he would, maintained his Sinatra and did it his way, insisting the locker room catch up to him, not the other way around.

"A lot of it was establishing expectations, raising expectations and figuring out who wanted to commit and do the work to be the best they could be," he said.

The biggest area of improvement was offense, Leach's chief area of expertise. Last season, the Cougars averaged a meager 20.4 points per game. This season, they averaged 29.8. The biggest improvement? Pass protection. The Cougs surrendered an eye-popping 57 sacks in 2012. This season, they gave up just 27, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. That is pretty impressive considering they threw 698 passes, 76 more than No. 2 California, which gave up 35 sacks. Seven conference teams didn't even throw 400 passes.

But Leach doesn't point to the numbers when assessing the season. He sees improvement there as a natural result of a team growing up and growing together. Keep in mind that the Cougs were 4-5 on Oct. 31 after a dreary 55-31 loss to Arizona State in front of just 20,617 fans in Martin Stadium, and bowl hopes seemed dim with three tough games to play.

"Nobody took their eye off the path," Leach said. "They kept fighting together and pulling together. We steadily improved."

The Cougars are solid favorites to get a seventh win against the Rams, who didn't beat a team with a winning record, and then head into the offseason expecting to take another step forward in the Pac-12's North Division in 2014.

The first question with fans is quarterback. Connor Halliday was decidedly hot and cold this fall. He put up huge numbers, ranking fifth in the nation with 348.9 yards passing per game, but he also threw a conference-high 21 interceptions.

Halliday, however, doesn't appear to be much of a question for Leach.

"Under the best of circumstances, he's going to be hard for anybody to beat out," Leach said.

Halliday needs to not only cut down the interceptions, he needs to improve upon his 62.8 completion percentage. While not horrible by any stretch, particularly considering the Cougs offered little threat to run the ball, Leach's quarterbacks typically eclipse the 70 percent threshold when things are in sync.

Leach said the offseason focus for Halliday is "from the neck up," but he most praised his quarterback's intangibles this season, particularly his leadership, which bodes well for the offseason.

"As we hit hard times during the season, rather than flinching, he always rallied and pulled everybody together and generated an awful lot of presence and enthusiasm among our team," Leach said.

The good news is just about all the Cougs' top skill players are returning next year. The bad news is there are some questions on the offensive line and the secondary, most notably the loss of enforcer Deone Bucannon, who has earned All-Pac-12 and some All-American recognition after the season.

Leach sees two young teams in the New Mexico Bowl that should be better next fall. While he's most encouraged by how his team improved during the season, he also saw something he liked after the regular season ended, something afforded to his team for the first time since 2003: More practices.

Said Leach, "We improved this last week, too."