Washington State Position Previews — Defense

Safety Deone Bucannon is without question Washington State's best defender. - Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, we take a look at the various fronts of Washington's upcoming opponent. Today, we examine the defense of the Washington State Cougars.

Players to watch
DE Xavier Cooper, LB Justin Sagote, S Deone Bucannon

Notable injuries/absences
CB Alex Jackson (Outsuspended), S Darius Lemora (Outfoot), DE Logan Mayes (Outtransfer), LB Chester Su'a (Questionabledisciplinary), DT Emmit Su'a-Kalio (Questionabledisciplinary)

Analysis
Washington State has surged to winning a bowl-eligible six wins for the first time since 2003, but they're far from the top-five powerhouses that they were in the early 2000s. Part of that problem is their defensive performancesfor all the rave reviews that Mike Leach's offense has brought the Cougars, they still field a subpar defense that currently gives up 31.6 points and 450 yards per game. Wazzu has a few budding stars on offense, especially at wide receiver, but until they are able to entice similarly talented defenders to the Palouse, they'll have trouble climbing the Pac-12 ladder.

The Cougars feature a 6-4, 303 lb. monster at defensive end in Xavier Cooper, who has earned 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks this year, both of which lead the team. In addition, he shares the team lead with four quarterback hurries. In short, he's the type of player who demands double-teams to corral effectively, and Dan Cozzetto probably counts himself lucky that all of his starting offensive linemen enter this game as healthy as anyone could reasonably expect. Cooper is joined at the line of scrimmage by tackles Kalafitoni Pole and Ioane Gauta, a pair of space-eaters who measure in at 6-1, 302 lbs. and 6-3, 285 lbs., respectively.

Washington State's linebacker corps is headlined by Justin Sagote, a former junior college player who has really blossomed in his final year in the program. After making 61 tackles in 12 games last year, Sagote is already up to 78 in 11 games this season, and has also been credited with breaking up two passes. His fellow starters are Cyrus Coen (6.5 tackles for loss), Darryl Monroe (two sacks) and Destiny Vaeao, a 6-4, 290-pounder at the Buck position (think of the role that the rush end plays in Washington's system, but more geared toward clogging up running lanes than bringing down the quarterback).

In the backfield, Wazzu is anchored by senior strong safety Deone Bucannon. In addition to unquestionably being the team's best defenderhe was a second-team all conference selection in 2012Bucannon is a hard hitter whose playing style falls on just the right side of being dirty. (That's not an insult; ask any defensive coordinator how they want their defense to play, and nearly all of them will tell you "just the right side of being dirty.") Bucannon leads the team in tackles (102), fumbles forced (three) and interceptions (five), and is a general source of chaos wherever he may be. Bucannon's fellow players in the secondary include free safety Taylor Taliulu (54 tackles) and cornerbacks Damante Horton (five interceptions, including three pick-sixes) and Nolan Washington (four passes broken up).

On the special teams side of the equation, Mike Bowlin attempted the majority of WSU's kickoff attempts this season until two weeks ago, when he sent two of his four attempts out of bounds against Arizona. Leach turned the duties over to Andrew Furney for last week's Utah game, presumably to allow Bowlin a chance to get his head right, and he's now again listed atop the depth chart. Just 16 of his 49 attempts have gone for touchbacks, though, so expect John Ross to make the most of his opportunities to return the ball. Aside from a 100-yard return that the Cougs gave up to Auburn in the season opener, they've allowed just 18.9 yards per return, a figure that would rank third in the conference. Bowlin also handles the Cougars' punting duties, but his average of 39.1 yards per attempt ranks ninth in the conference. WSU is also one of just four teams in the Pac-12 to not allow a single punt return of 20 yards or more, though that may speak more to Bowlin's inability to outkick his coverage than anything else.

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As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.

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