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Opponent Defense Preview: Washington State

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Wake up, everybody, the Apple Cup is here!

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Personnel

Wazzu’s sneaky-good defense owes much to a constantly improving line. The Cougs average almost six tackles for loss per game and are 24th in the country in the run defense by allowing on average 130 yards per game. The latter is one of the only statistical areas where they top the Washington defense.

Although they thrive against the run, the front seven wouldn’t be the envy of, say, Utah, where sacks are concerned. They only average just over 1 12 per game, on the same level as Rutgers, UConn, and Iowa State. This isn’t to say, however, that they don’t get sufficient pressure on opposing QBs. WSU has 12 interceptions on the year (30th in the country), and that doesn’t just happen without at least sufficient passing pressure.

Among the trench warriors is DE Hercules Mata’afa, who exploded last year as a redshirt freshman All-American alongside Destiny Vaeao. Although Vaeao graduated and is currently playing with the Eagles, the line is boosted by the return of NT Robert Barber. He was reinstated to the team after a complicated process of legal issues leading to a suspension from school before a state senator, boosters, and team parents came to vouch for his behavior and advocate reinstatement. I’m not gonna pretend to be an expert on his case off the field, but on the field he’s a much-needed reinforcement for the Washington State defense.

If there’s one thing second-year DC Alex Grinch has really seemed to improve during his tenure so far, it’s the physicality that Ye Olde Cougar Defense of Yore lacked. You see the product of that on the line and in the backers, epitomized by LB Peyton Pelluer (nephew of former UW quarterback Steve Pelluer), who somehow seems to be everywhere all the time and is, accordingly, one of the Pac-12’s leading tacklers. Also a cornerstone is former walk-on LB/Nickel/Everything Parker Henry from Vancouver (WA, not BC). Oh, and anyone who has this as his roster photo is maybe my favorite person ever, unrelated to his football acumen.

This newfound toughness has built on WSU’s defensive campaign of 2015. Like the Dawgs, the Cougs out-Stanforded Stanford and made an already down Oregon feel worse, among other things. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Even more significant is that, since the Grinch defensive takeover, they’ve drastically improved their takeaways per game; the Cougs currently have the 12th best turnover margin in the country, ridiculously impressive considering where they were in that category just two years ago. And if you’re an opponent looking for a bad time, that will quickly come to fruition by giving the potent Cougar offense even more opportunities to score.

The secondary seems to me to follow the Wazzu defensive trend of not being so elite that they steal the limelight, but good enough that they’ll eff you up if you don’t respect them.

Safety Shalom Luani has been a steal since the Cougs picked him up out of City College of San Francisco. Luani’s adept spatial instincts and body control are further honed by his career as a soccer and rugby player; for the former he played and scored in American Samoa’s first FIFA win, and the latter manifests itself in his strength in sound open-field tackling.

He’s flanked by CB Darrien Molton who started all of his games last year as a freshman. Then there’s CB Marcellus Pippins. Incidentally, he hits like so:

A lot of the WSU passing defense categories wouldn’t appear to add up. The pass defense yards per game figure is all the way down at 116th in FBS with 278 air yards per game allowed, yards per completion at more than 12, and yards per attempt at 7.77. In spite of this, they overachieve in comparison with only 16 passing touchdowns given up. For perspective, that’s only four more than UW has allowed.

The defense as a whole is on some level very bend-don’t-break-ish: despite being a mediocre 70th in third-down defense and giving up as many passing yards per game as they do, the Cougs are only giving up 25.5 points per game (50th in FBS) and have vastly improved in the red zone with an opponent scoring percentage of .813. Would it blow everybody’s mind if I said that’s better than Bama? I mean, it helps that the Tide allow so few trips to the red zone that their numbers look crazy wonky...still though, for both Washington schools, it’s fun to say "Our red zone defense is better than Bama’s."

Bottom Line

The new physicality and emphasis on turnovers have, by the looks of things, become pillars of this team. Even the defense’s job is essentially to get the ball back into the hands of Luke Falk’s precision passing attack. Just two years ago, the Cougars had a horrendous turnover margin that worked against them, given that the defense used to be all but nonexistent and all the pressure was on the offense being able to win shootouts. Remember when Connor Halliday broke the FBS passing record—and WSU lost? Yeah, that’s not happening any more with the new look Alex Grinch has brought to Pullman.

As such, I’ll hazard a prediction that this game comes down to who protects the ball best. The Wazzu offense averages a bit over 42 points per game (around two less than Washington, words I never thought I would say). Giving Falk’s receivers and rolling ground game even more opportunities to score won’t end up a fun time for the Huskies.

Thus, if we’re gonna narrow it down even further, we have to see fundamentally sound blocking from the Washington O-line; if this unit gets out-physicaled (totally a word) by the Coug defensive line, we’ll likely see Browning making sub-optimal throws around a Cougar pass defense that knows how to take advantage of that. And do I have to remind you that we don’t want the Cougar offense getting the ball more than absolutely necessary? (Answer: No.)

On the other hand, if the Washington line protects Jake, I fully trust that kid’s smarts and decision-making to keep the ball safe and move downfield. If we get this scenario come Friday, the Huskies should kill it.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.


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