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Nonconference primer: Washington State Cougars

We continue our look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2015.

WASHINGTON STATE

Portland State Vikings, Saturday, September 5

  • Coach: Bruce Barnum, first year

  • 2014 record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Sky

  • Returning starters: Eight offense, eight defense

  • Offensive headliners: Kieran McDonagh saw the majority of time under center for the Vikings last season, but he’s in a competition this offseason. Alex Toureen, Portland State’s second leading receiver from 2014, is also back.

  • Defensive headliners: The unquestioned leader of the Vikings’ defense is senior linebacker Jeremy Lutali. Last season, he finished with 87 stops -- 31 more than the next most productive tackler. Lutali also racked up 10.5 takes for loss. He was the only Portland State player to reach double digits in that category.

  • The skinny: Barnum is coaching this season on an interim basis -- he’ll be re-evaluated after his current 12-month contract expires in December, so he’s essentially in the midst of a long job interview. It’s safe to say that the Portland State program is in flux. Last season, Washington State stomped the Vikings 59-21. Though they will be facing a core of returning players, the Cougars should again own an overwhelming talent advantage.

At Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Saturday, September 12

  • Coach: Kyle Flood (23-16), fourth year

  • 2014 record: 8-5, 3-5 Big Ten

  • Returning starters: Five offense, five defense

  • Offensive headliners: Hayden Rettig is in line to replace Gary Nova as the starter. The LSU transfer is the highest-rated quarterback prospect Rutgers has ever landed. His main target is expected to be senior Leonte Carroo, a first team All-Big Ten receiver who racked up 1,086 yards last season. Running back Paul James returns from an ACL tear.

  • Defensive headliners: Defensive end Kemoko Turay recorded 7.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, and Rutgers expects him to become a true pass-rushing stud with a year of experience under his belt. The Scarlet Knights also return linebacker Steve Longa, who led the 2014 team with 102 tackles.

  • The skinny: This will be an early season litmus test for Washington State. Traveling across the country to play in the Eastern time zone is never easy, but the Cougars will have to do that to play a team that beat them in Seattle last season. Washington State did manage 535 passing yards in that 41-38 loss -- a healthy total even considering their lofty standards -- but a pair of poorly timed turnovers did the Cougars in. Rutgers also ran for 229 yards, a number that new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will not want to see again.

Wyoming Cowboys, Saturday, September 19

  • Coach: Craig Bohl (4-8), second year

  • 2014 record: 4-8, 2-6 Mountain West

  • Returning starters: Six offense, four defense

  • Offensive headliners: The running back tandem of Brian Hill (796 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Shaun Wick (753 yards, 6 touchdowns) is the centerpiece of Wyoming’s offense. With the departure of 2014 quarterback Colby Kirkegaard and the team’s top two receivers, the backfield should take on greater burden. Indiana transfer Cameron Coffman is favored to start at quarterback.

  • Defensive headliners: Defensive end Eddie Yarbrough is the leader here. He racked up 47 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks last season. He brings a solid anti-run presence, but the Cowboys’ defense was below average in 2014.

  • The skinny: Wyoming likely lacks the athletes to keep up with Washington State’s spread-it-out offensive attack, so this is a game in which the Cougars should rack up some points. That being said, the Cowboys do have some talent in that offensive backfield, so the new starters on Grinch’s defensive line will be tested in this game. Though Washington State will be expected to win, this should be a good final primer prior to Pac-12 play for them.

Thoughts: Washington State had clear intentions of returning to a bowl in 2014, but consecutive losses to Rutgers and Nevada to open the season quickly soured early optimism. The Cougars must deliver a better nonconference record in 2015 to turn the ship around, so that Week 2 contest at Rutgers really looms large as far as building momentum. There is a feeling that this might be a truly defining year in the Mike Leach era -- his program is coming off a gut punch of a season, and fresh defensive leadership has taken over -- so a solid start is critical. Portland State shouldn’t be a problem. The true fun will begin a week after that in New Jersey.