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Opponent Defense Preview: Apples and Cougs

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It’s the week of weeks.

Arizona v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Fun fact: When I was, like, seven, I asked my dad if every team had their Apple Cup this week. He explained that that’s just the name of this game, because it turns out Washington grows a butt-ton of apples. Also fun fact: I can’t believe it’s already the Apple Cup.

So, with all the love for the Air Raid and Minshew’s mustache, you forgot all about this whole Wazzu’s defense thing? No worries, we’re here to help:

Personnel and What to Expect

While many people — Coug fans and haters alike — expected a significant decline in the defense thanks to losses like DC Alex Grinch to Ohio State or Hercules Mata’afa, Marcellus Pippins, Robert Taylor, Frankie Luvu and more to graduation and NFL, former Minnesota head coach, Tracy Claeys, and the rest of the defense had other plans.

Instead of free-falling like it was predicted, WSU’s defense has kept on keeping on; they’re currently allowing on average 22.6 points per game (39th in the country, and goes up to 25.75 when excluding OOC games), have recovered eight fumbles and have nine interceptions, are allowing 333.8 yards per game (25th in the country), have 6.7 tackles for loss per game (40th), allow 125.5 rushing YPG (23rd), and allow 208.3 passing YPG (44th). In other words, they don’t suck.

In fact, some might say the Cougar defense does more than not suck. Some might say they’re actually pretty good.

What stands out about this team is that nobody — statistically — stands out. While that sounds like a good thing for their opponents on paper, what it implies more is that their success can’t be credited to one or a couple of guys around whom opponents can plan. Compare that to last year, where Washington’s offensive success was largely founded on subduing Hercules Mata’afa, WSU’s defense in 2018 is kinda just a bunch of guys doing their job quite well, with minimal flash. Gee, sound like the cousin of a defense you know? (Hint: The answer is “Yes” because the answer is “Washington.”)

The Cougs use a handful of nickel because this is 2018 and this is college football and especially this is the Pac-12 where we eat nickel for breakfast, but they also like to get down in a 3-4 at times, especially in what they view as clear running situations where they frequently commit to taking up blockers with a two-gap front and then sending everybody and their mother to cover behind. Against Cal and Stanford, especially, that caused some problems for them by exposing either the edges for rushers or the flats for escape valve tight ends or running backs.

Up front is still shockingly effective after Hercules left for the NFL, albeit, following the same pattern as they’ve had in years past, on the small side: Of their entire roster, only two players listed as defensive linemen are 300 lbs — walk-on Jesus Echevarria and Lamonte McDougle at 300 and 305, respectively. McDougle is a transfer and has to sit out this year, and Echevarria hasn’t played in any conference games. So, essentially, for a team that frequents a two-gap front any time they’re not in a 2-4-5, there’s a lot of feisty smaller guys — although calling a group of 240-280 lb dudes “smaller” feels so weird, but whatever. Logan Tago is of course the name that Dawg fans are probably most familiar with off the edge, while former walk-on from Sultan, Taylor Comfort, is a mini-Greg Gaines-ian nose tackle at 6’, 280 lbs who had a fumble recovery at Stanford. Across from Tago you’re likely to find Will Rodgers, and expect to hear some from Nnamdi Oguayo, Karson Block, and Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei.

However, by my estimation at least, what makes the front seven churn are the stable of linebackers backing it all up. Peyton Pelluer is still around in his one billionth year of college football to oversee the middle and make tackles everywhere, all the time, while the rotating group of guys on the outside are young-ish but make their presence known. Among them is sophomore Jahad Woods and, built somewhere between an OLB and a DE, the 6’4”, 235 lb Willie Taylor. Additionally, the sophomore Dominick Silvels took the step from special teams contributor to defensive regular and fellow sophomore Dillon Sherman has improved his contribution as well. Behind Pelluer, though, is a likely pillar of the future, redshirt freshman Fa’avae Fa’avae, who had a sack of Justin Herbert and has 2.5 on the season.

Then in the backfield, they’ve got Darrien Molton who, as far as I’m concerned, is the Cougar DBs’ version of Peyton Pelluer as far as “He’s still around?” factor goes. In fact, if the linebackers are the young-ish but reliable group, the secondary are the old-ish but reliable ones. Molton a senior, Deion Singleton a redshirt junior, Marcus Strong a junior, nickel Hunter Dale a senior... In general, this shows; while the secondary might not be a bunch of intimidating, shut-down corners and safeties, they just do their job and don’t often get super messed up. If there’s one weakness that stands out, it’d be the weakness that most defensive back units have — their corps group is made up of pretty small guys around 5’9 and 5’10,” Singleton at 6’2” notwithstanding, and, subsequently, a receiving group that’s made up of a bunch of giants between 6’2” and 6’7” at, oh, I dunno, Stanford or whatever, can go up for jump balls all the time. And, pretty much always, win.

Overall, there’s not a lot to say here because there’s not a lot of secrets to WSU’s defensive success; it’s pretty much just “Everybody does their job pretty darn well.” Like I mentioned earlier, they’ve had some trouble when they’re very confident a run is coming and over-commit to stopping anything between the tackles, or against huge freaking Stanford-sized receivers and tight ends (but who doesn’t have trouble there?), but otherwise there’s not a bunch of overwhelming weaknesses. Nor, otherwise, are there one or two places where they’re overwhelmingly successful that opponents need to focus on shutting down to win.

Bottom Line

Honestly, there’s no one thing Washington needs to neutralize here — it just comes down to “Don’t suck” or, put more diplomatically, “Out-execute them.”

What will be interesting is the play of Luke Wattenberg, Nick Harris, and Jaxson Kirkland against a smaller-than-average interior defensive line in the passing game. While I don’t expect them to get out-muscled, keeping any stunting linebackers rushing up the middle away from Browning isn’t going to be an easy task.

If the offense is particularly successful Friday, I fully expect it to include some Ahmed sweeps as well as planned runs off the edge to prevent the defense from keying in between the tackles. It goes without saying, but if Washington can establish those threats early in the game it would go far to free up some space for Gaskin and Ahmed between the tackles later.

And, while we’re on the topic of “Stuff we’ve learned from Wazzu’s past opponents”: Uh, high-point it to Ty Jones a couple times, I guarantee his 6’4” self can reach higher than Darrien Molton.

As always, any lurking Coug fans feel free to give your take — but so help me God if any of you get into a dumb internet shouting match I’ll slap the crap out of you (that goes to you too, Husky fans thinking about being annoying at any visiting Coug).

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