Mike Leach has never won a season opener in his five years as coach of Washington State, but that could all change when the Cougars begin a campaign filled with optimism by hosting FCS member Montana State on Saturday night. With senior quarterback Luke Falk poised to become the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history, Washington State — picked to finish third in the North Division preseason poll — will likely prove difficult to stop.
Falk could have bolted for the NFL after a junior season in which he tied his own school record with 38 touchdown tosses and was fourth nationally in passing yards with 4,468, but decided against it. “It felt right to come back,’’ Falk told reporters. “Felt like I had some things, growing up to do in life, not football. I felt football-wise, I could. But there’s still a lot to learn this year and I really want to finish off with the guys I came in with.” The Cougars are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for only the fourth time since joining the Pacific-8 Conference (now the Pac-12) in 1968 and first since the 2001-03 clubs went a combined 30-8. The Bobcats are coached by former Washington State assistant Jeff Choate, who inherits a team that went 4-7 in the Big Sky Conference last season and returns 15 starters (seven on offense, eight on defense).
TV: 10:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1. LINE: None
ABOUT MONTANA STATE (2016: 4-7): The Bobcats are led by sophomore quarterback Chris Murray, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year who rushed for team bests of 860 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He’ll be counted on even more with senior running back Nick LaSane, listed No. 1 on the depth chart, suspended for the first four games after getting arrested twice over the summer (DUI, bar fight). Without much of a passing attack, Choate will likely lean on freshman running back Troy Andersen to support Murray.
ABOUT WASHINGTON STATE (2016: 8-5): The Cougars added a significant rushing element to their Air Raid offense last season as their 23 touchdowns on the ground were their most since totaling 27 in 1997. The top three running backs from 2016 return as sophomore James Williams (584 yards, six touchdowns last season), and seniors Jamal Morrow (575, five) and Gerard Wicks (475, 11) are all expected to again carry the load. Falk’s favorite target might wind up being junior Tavares Martin Jr., who recorded 64 receptions for 728 yards and seven touchdowns while sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack — Martin’s high school teammate in Belle Glade, Fla. — could be ready for a breakthrough season.
1. Washington State junior DL Hercules Mata’afa was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season after recording team highs of five sacks and seven quarterback hurries.
2. Williams and Morrow (48 receptions apiece last season) and Wicks (29) are also receiving threats with Falk throwing five touchdown passes to Morrow.
3. Washington State has won all eight meetings, including 23-22 in the last encounter in 2010.
PREDICTION: Washington State 42, Montana State 20