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After picking itself off the Pac-12 mat, Wazzu wonders how high it can climb

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks entered a meeting room in the Cougars football building with his phone pulled out looking for “The Messiah.”

Once he found his quarterback Luke Falk he began filming, asking him what it’s like to be the savior of Washington State football.

“Gabe has got foolish remarks,” Falk said before quickly turning the subject back to football.

Though it’s an obvious joke, it isn’t lost on anyone, especially Falk. There’s plenty of hope alive and well (resurrected, perhaps?) in Pullman following the 2015 season. Falk led the Cougars to their first bowl win in more than a decade after beating UCLA (their first win versus the Bruins since 2007) and Oregon (their first win versus the Ducks since 2006) in the regular season.

The hope stemming from last season’s accomplishments has increased the expectations for the Cougars as they head into spring ball.

In 2015, Washington State had the No. 1 passing offense in the nation, averaging 390 yards per game, and from that attack the Cougars return some of the most important pieces -- starting with Falk and Marks, who led the conference with eight receptions a game.

“We had the No. 1 passing offense,” Marks said. “We can be better. Just because we’re No. 1 doesn’t mean we can’t be more of No. 1.”

The Cougars lose Dom Williams, the team’s second-leading receiver, but return River Cracraft as well as the next eight -- yes, eight -- most productive pass-catchers off last year’s team.

Those eight pass-catchers include the Cougars’ top three backs from last season. The run game had the best rushing average by far of any team during coach Mike Leach’s tenure. That not only diversified the offensive attack but also made the wide receivers’ jobs far easier, Marks said.

“Our running game was exponentially better than any other year since I’ve been here and you could tell how much that balanced us out against teams,” Marks said. “You could tell it made running routes easier.”

Surprisingly -- especially for a Leach team -- the side of the ball that is really allowing people to hope is the defense. With defensive coordinator Alex Grinch settling in for Year 2 after making major strides in his first season, it’s easy to see why.

From 2014 to 2015 the overall defense improved, allowing opponents 5.8 yards per play in 2015 as opposed to 6.2 yards per play in 2014. But the secondary was the group that made the most obvious strides. They recorded 13 interceptions in 2015 (after just three in 2014) and gave up just 31 passes of 20-plus yards (58 in 2014).

Overall, it was just a more active group, recording three times the number of turnovers last season than in the season before and tallying 102 tackles for a loss (as opposed to just 77 in 2014). The defense returns six starters in 2016.

“You have to play defense to be successful,” Grinch said. “Coach [Leach] has a long history of winning a lot of football games. ... He knows you can’t outscore everybody.”

And in several wins last season the Washington State defense was the defining factor. No longer did Cougars fans have to fear that games that featured their offense getting into the 70s could somehow end in a loss. In fact, last year the Cougars won six games in which their offense didn’t reach 40 points -- something that had happened only seven times during Leach’s career previously.

What has really fueled this team during the offseason is what the team didn’t do last year. Falk can’t remember how many touchdown passes he threw but can give detailed rundowns of the four games the team lost. Marks returned because he believed the team had more work to do. Leach remembers specific plays that -- had they gone just slightly differently -- would’ve meant the Cougars playing in the Pac-12 title game.

“Our expectations were quite a bit higher [last year], but we definitely exceeded everyone else’s expectations,” Leach said. “We were a double-digit underdog six times and won. Our expectations were higher than that.”

And now everyone else’s are, too.