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Chasing Stanford: Rising Cougars will be tested early

Luke Falk passed for 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns as a sophomore at Washington State in 2015. Mark J. Terrill/AP

We continue our series looking at what several Pac-12 teams must do to catch reigning conference champion Stanford.

Next up: Washington State.

How they make the Pac-12 championship game: They were close last season. Really, really close. The Cougars blew through the Pac-12 South with wins over the Arizona schools, Colorado and an epic win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl. But it was tough sledding in the North with an early loss to Cal, a heartbreaker against Stanford and blowout loss to Washington. Early momentum is going to be key in 2016, because the first half of the season sets up to be a grind. After a trip to Boise State in Week 2, the Cougars open conference play at home against Oregon and follow it up with a trip to Stanford. Then it’s a visit from UCLA and a trip to ASU. A 4-0 start in conference play, which would include wins over the perceived top two teams in the conference, puts the Cougars in the driver’s seat. Even splitting the division games would be solid -- whether it’s beating Oregon or the Cardinal. If they drop those back-to-back division games, however, it’s going to be a tough hole to dig out of. Beyond the schedule, it’s noteworthy that the defense made huge strides last season. In 2014, the Cougars yielded 38.6 points per game. That dropped to 27.7 last season. Also notable is the turnover ratio, which went from minus-17 in 2014 to minus-1 last season. It’s still in the red, but that’s a heck of an improvement. If the Cougars keep going down that path and the defense can come close to matching the offense, they are going to be tough to stop.

What’s holding them back: You could say that during the first few years of the Mike Leach era the Cougars were afflicted with a crisis of confidence. It felt like every week on the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference Leach would talk about how good his team looked in practice, but on Saturdays, that team wouldn’t show up. “You get confidence from winning, but you can’t win without confidence,” he once told me -- football’s chicken-or-egg equivalent. Once they started to get confidence, consistency became an issue. Some weeks, the Cougars looked unstoppable. Others, there were just enough hiccups to question their ascension among the league’s elite. They go into 2016 having won four of their last five, including a win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. If they can keep that momentum going and play like they think they belong among the league’s top teams, the mental aspect of the game will take care of itself. Leach preaches repetition -- that practice should be the same as a game. If that starts consistently translating on Saturdays, then the Cougars will be in good shape.

The X factor: Not only did the Cougars run the football more in 2015, they ran it more efficiently. As long as Leach is the coach, the Cougars will always look to pass first. But the difference was quarterback Luke Falk, who was less of a gunslinger than his predecessor and took what the defense gave him. As a result, the Cougars ran 28 percent of the time (up from 23 the year before) and had 568 more yards and three more rushing touchdowns. Per a team source, in previous years when defenses showed five or six men in the box, then-quarterback Connor Halliday would still throw. Not because he couldn’t read the defense, but because he was so confident in his abilities that he could still make the play. Falk has a more measured approach. And if he sees the opportunity to hand off the ball, he’ll take it. The Cougars aren’t going to change who they are. But if they can continue to threaten the possibility of a run, it makes life easier for Falk and his receivers, and it helps keep his pitch count down (relative, of course, to WSU standards).