Mike Leach sees Washington State finally putting the pieces together

Even when his team was losing its season opener to FCS Portland State, Mike Leach saw Washington State making the progress that currently has it 5-2. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Washington State is 5-2 heading into its matchup with No. 8 Stanford, and Pac-12 North title implications are on the line in Pullman, Washington.

Just take that in for a moment, because it’s something that no one expected after the Cougars dropped their season-opener to FCS Portland State. Or when they struggled on the road against Rutgers. Or when they started the Pac-12 slate at 0-1.

Except, maybe, Cougars coach Mike Leach.

He had moments early in the season -- yes, even that Portland State game -- when he saw the pieces of this puzzle coming together.

“It has been gradual and it was in spurts,” Leach said. “A drive here. A drive there. Kind of the ‘We can do it once, now do it one more time,’ then it’d be a quarter, then it’d be a half.”

He knows his team will need to put together a full game together this weekend if it wants to compete with Stanford, though.

Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan is playing the best football of his career. Running back Christian McCaffrey is the conference leader in all-purpose yards. And the Stanford defense is maturing at a fast pace.

But so is Washington State.

In the past three games quarterback Luke Falk has thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The Cougars run game is the most effective it has been over the past four seasons, averaging 91 yards a game, which has complemented the 415 pass yards per game. And the defense -- with a few new faces on the staff -- has made big enough strides to keep the Cougars in games.

Leach saw all that coming together two months ago, but it just wasn’t there yet.

“You’d see these flashes out there at practice, great things would happen,” Leach said. “And then you’d go out there in a game and nothing was synchronized, nothing was together.”

But then, as he anticipated would happen, the drives started tacking themselves together and the players started making more plays. Even though each player might’ve only gotten a little better, he said that total result was a team that had played more together and was “light years better.”

Thus, two months and five wins later Leach can confidently say that this is the best team he has had at Washington State.

“We’re playing together better,” Leach said. “I think our locker room right now is pretty solid as far as everybody doing things the same way, thinking about things the same way, pulling the same direction, which everybody talks about that and you shoot for that but you seldom get it. I’m not saying we’re all the way there, but we do have elements of that.”

Leach just hopes it’s enough of the elements to put together the full puzzle.