Another late flop overshadows Washington State's season
A nine-win season at Washington State was a monumental accomplishment worthy of celebration because success had been so fleeting for the Cougars.
Yet the past two 9-4 seasons resulted in flops to end the year - first in the Apple Cup against rival Washington and then in the Holiday Bowl both times.
The latest deflating finish came in Thursday night's 42-17 loss to Michigan State. It concluded an awkward month where Washington State was routed by the Huskies and missed out on the Pac-12 North title, coach Mike Leach and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch flirt with other jobs, and starting quarterback Luke Falk finished his record-setting career as a spectator because of injury.
For what Leach has accomplished in his six seasons in Pullman, the late flops have left fans unfulfilled even if he sees the season as a success.
"The one thing that is indisputable is we had a tremendous season," Leach said after the Holiday Bowl. "We had a better season than most people expected. Probably a few games short of what we as a team expected, as coaches, as players, a few games short of what we expected, but it was a good season for us and one where we got plenty of space to improve on."
Washington State's biggest challenge going into 2018 will be replacing Falk, the Pac-12's all-time leader in touchdown passes. But Tyler Hilinski has shown promise in his limited opportunities and the Cougars defense could be strong.
Here's what else to watch heading into 2018:
STABILITY: Leach ultimately stayed with the Cougars and got a new contract. Will that keep Leach from looking elsewhere in the future? A big question lingering over the program is the vacant athletic director position and whether whoever fills it can work with Leach. Even with the uncertainty about Leach, the Cougars landed an excellent recruiting class in the early signing period.
HILINSKI'S TIME: It will be impossible to fully replace Falk's productivity. But Hilinski showed he has the potential to be just as explosive. There was no greater example of what Hilinski could do than Washington State's amazing comeback to beat Boise State in Week 2 when he stepped in for Falk and threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the overtime victory. Hilinski also showed he's still young when he threw for 509 yards with four interceptions against Arizona.
But he flashed enough talent as a sophomore for the Cougars to have confidence there won't be a major drop off moving forward.
LINE CHANGE: No position group for the Cougars faces more change than the offensive line. Washington State will need to replace three starters on the offensive line, including standouts Cody O'Connell and Cole Madison. They return center Frederick Mauigoa and left tackle Andre Dillard, but finding replacements on the right side of the line will be critical for giving Hilinski the protection he'll need.
HERC'S DECISION: All-American defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa will decide whether to go pro. The junior was the AP Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a first-team All-American playing both defensive end and defensive tackle for the Cougars. But he's undersized for the defensive line and has predominantly played as a tackle in college. He'll most likely play defensive end in the NFL. Another season in college may help boost his NFL stock.