When Mike Leach accepted the head coaching position at Washington State, the popular opinion was that it was a solid hire. After all, he had experienced all kinds of success at Texas Tech and was going to a town, Pullman, Washington, that is pretty similar to in-the-middle-of-nowhere Lubbock.
However, from the onset it was obvious that the rebuild was going to be an uphill task.
“When I first got here we had six offensive linemen on scholarship,” Leach told John Feistein of the Washington Post. “I think three of them actually belonged. They averaged about 260 pounds.”
His stay in Wazzu got off to a rocky start, to say the least. He shuffled between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday at quarterback in his first year at WSU, and while his Air Raid offense racked up plenty of yards, it translated to a paltry 3-9 record.
The Cougars showed improvement in 2013, going 6-6 in the regular season to qualify for their first bowl, but they followed that up with another 3-9 disappointment last year.
Halliday was on pace to break the single-season NCAA passing record before he suffered a gruesome injury that ended his year, but the preposterous stat lines did not translate into much productivity in the win column.
The game that epitomized Leach's first three years in Pullman might have come last season against Cal. In that game, Halliday threw for 734 yards, the highest game total at all levels in college football history, and seven touchdowns, but the Cougs missed a last-second field goal attempt and lost 60-59.
In other words, a great offense and a ton of robust statistics, but not much in the way of defense or wins.
2015, though, has been different, even though it started in the worst way possible. Leach's team lost the first game of the season to Portland State, a FCS program, and things looked incredibly bad in Pullman.
Wazzu Nation badly wanted Leach fired.
Lucky for Leach, and Washington State football, there is a clause in the 54-year-old coach's contract that states that if Leach is fired, the school would have to pay him $1.2 million for the life of his contract, which runs through 2019. So, not wanting to do their best Notre Dame-Charlie Weis impression, the school was pretty much precluded from taking action.
However, now Leach and his program seem to have turned a corner in 2015.
Even after the Cougars lost to Portland State to open the season, they beat Rutgers and Wyoming in succession, and then lost a hard fought battle to Cal 34-28.
But then, to most everyone's surprise, they ran off three straight victories over Pac-12 heavyweights Oregon and Arizona as well as Oregon State.
Sophomore signal-caller Luke Falk has filled in nicely and it looks like the experience he gained after taking over for the injured Halliday last year was invaluable.
Falk currently ranks fourth in the nation in passing yards, and his 70.8 completion percentage is third, which is quite impressive considering the enormous volume of attempts that Falk has thrown.
And in a near-upset of Stanford late Saturday night - which would have been Washington State's first win against an AP Top 10 team since 1992 - it wasn't the offense that did the heavy lifting, it was the defense. Despite not getting much notoriety in Leach's system - where the wide open passing attack seems to be king - the defense did a fantastic job against the bruising Stanford offense. The Cardinal were able to muster only a field goal in the first half, and WSU kicker Erik Powell made four of them to give the Cougs a 12-3 haltime advantage.
Stanford came alive in the second half, as quarterback Kevin Hogan produced several big runs, but Washington State's defense still kept the game close. They held the Cardinal to a field goal with just under two minutes left in the fourth, so the Cougars needed only a field goal to win the game on their last drive.
Falk engineered a solid drive, converting two fourth down plays, and set the stage for Powell to make his sixth field goal of the day. The kick sailed wide right, and the Cardinal escaped, but it was still a tremendous showing by Washington State.
The defense held Hogan to a putrid 86 passing yards, which was the first time that he has been held under 150 all season.
They contained Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey throughout the contest, as he didn't find the end zone or eclipse 150 yards from scrimmage for the first time since the first game of the season.
The passing game wasn't up to it normal standard, Falk's 354 yards through the air fell considerably short of his 412 average, but the miserably, rainy weather likely played a role in that.
Other than that, the Cougars played an excellent, well-rounded game on national television against the No. 8 team in the country.
At 5-3, the Cougs are only one victory away for qualifying for the second bowl game of Leach's tenure and, in my estimation, they should win at least two of their final four games. They still have Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado and Washington left on the schedule, none of which are as good of a team as Stanford.
Winning two of those games would give Leach his best regular season record at Washington State, and a possible bowl victory would give him an eight-win season.
It's safe to say not many expected that kind of success this year, especially after the opening debacle to Portland State, but Leach thinks they're just scratching the surface.
“We’ve got a pretty good thing going now,” he said, per Feinstein. “We’ve got a very young group. I think we’ve got four seniors starting on each side of the ball this year so, whatever we are this year, we should be better next year."