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B1G nonconference opponent: Washington State

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We're taking a look at the 2015 nonconference opponents for Big Ten teams. Up now: Washington State, which plays Rutgers on Sept. 12.

The Cougars were expected to build on a 2013 bowl trip but fell back to their losing ways. Freshman QB Luke Falk was impressive filling in for the injured Connor Halliday over the final four games, but while Mike Leach’s offense has scored as expected, the D still isn’t close to making Wazzu a serious contender.

Offense

How the Cougars beat you: Despite an overwhelming lack of success in the win-loss column, there is no arguing that Leach’s Air Raid moves the ball: 477.7 ypg (No. 1 in the FBS); 31.8 ppg (No. 45). With a 4-1 pass-to-run ratio, no FBS team last year relied more on the air attack. The result was four players with at least 60 catches. Spreading the field creates one-on-one matchup problems that the Cougars exploit for big plays—69 throws of 20-plus yards, tied for No. 4 in the FBS—but losing the nation’s second-most-productive WR, Vince Mayle (123.6 ypg), and running mate Isiah Myers (972 yards, 12 TDs) is a huge blow. Still, Falk will have junior River Cracraft and senior Dom Williams, who combined for 109 catches and 17 TDs, and junior Gabe Marks, who redshirted last year but was the leading receiver in ’13.

How you beat the Cougars: Halliday threw the most INTs (46) of any QB the past three seasons. His up-anddown career was marked by individual records (734 yards in a game!) but marred by a lack of team success. And when the offense turned it over (minus-17 margin, third worst in the FBS), the D wasn’t stout, giving up points 72 percent of the time. In fact, WSU had only two games without allowing a score off a turnover.

Defense

How the Cougars beat you: The Cougars gave up 38.6 points per game last season (No. 114). As a result, Alex Grinch, safeties coach at Missouri the past three seasons, was named D-coordinator, replacing Mike Breske. Grinch’s take on ’14: “No matter what the issues were, you’re here to install a defense and do things in a different way, so you don’t spend much time trying to correct the package that was implemented a year ago. Instead, you focus on your own.” With just 8 turnovers forced in ’14 (fewest in the FBS) and only 3 INTs, WSU relied on its offense to win games. The Cougars did rank fifth in the Pac-12 against the run (145.7 ypg), but they’ll need an instant replacement for DT Xavier Cooper (9Π TFL, 5 sacks), who left early for the draft.

How you beat the Cougars: Last year’s 60-59 loss to Cal—yep, 59 in a loss—is proof that little is expected from the secondary. WSU’s pass D was second to last in the FBS (296.6 ypg) and gave up 58 throws of 20-plus yards, tied for third most. Grinch will stick to an odd-front scheme, but there’s a learning curve. “The biggest thing we’re trying to implement is making sure guys have a very specific knowledge of their responsibility regardless of call, which allows them to play as fast as possible,” Grinch says.