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Opponent Defensive Preview: Apples

It’s that time again.

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

An intro? Ugh, as if!

Personnel and What to Expect

While the loss of Gardner Minshew’s dynamism has inevitably not helped WSU this year, the real cause of their step back has quite clearly been the defense. After all, Anthony Gordon might not have Minshew’s flair and improv-ability, but he’s still pretty darn good in Mike Leach’s system and is, just like always, leading the country in touchdown passes — plus has surpassed Minshew, Falk, Halliday, and Ryan Leaf as the Cougars’ record-holder for season passing touchdowns. No, the Cougs’ rebuild has definitely been on the defense.

WSU’s streak of success (sans Apple Cups, anyway) from 2015 on has similarly really been on the backs of the defense; this year, that defense has regressed to 31.5 points per game — up from 22.6 at this point last year — has allowed almost five yards per rush (4.98, to be exact), and resulted in the mid-season resignation of DC Tracy Claeys.

Up front is where their similarities with Colorado shine, although based on the eye test the Cougs at least seem to get a bit more pressure even though they’re averaging no more than two sacks a game. *Insert joke here about how pitiful the Washington O line’s performance was against a defense that had up til last Saturday averaged only 1.7 sacks per game.*

In this area, WSU averages two sacks per game, with junior DT Will Rodgers leading the way at four on the season. Behind him are two linebackers, Jahad Woods and Ron Stone (more on them in a sec) at three and 2.5, before a couple other D linemen, DE Karson Block and NT Dallas Hobbs. In other words, unlike years past with players like Hercules Mata’afa, there isn’t any single player to particularly key in on.

The Cougs lost edge rusher Logan Tago and inside guy Taylor Comfort after last year, who I referred to in the past as “mini Greg Gaines,” and, while those two themselves were never huge sack-monsters, I can’t help but wonder if having another guy or two like that to rotate in would help WSU be a bit more consistent up front. That being said, while the first string group of Block, Hobbs, and Rodgers is a mixture of ages, their two deep includes three seniors that can rotate in with Nnamdi Oguayo, Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, and Tristan Brock, respectively.

Also worth noting is that it makes sense the defensive linemen, regardless of position, wouldn’t have huge statistical numbers — the Cougs have overwhelmingly play 3-3-5 and have subsequently required a lot from the more interior players up front, plus it stood out to me in film that, while they don’t primarily rush only three, it’s not uncommon for them to do so. Naturally, then, you’re not gonna see a huge statistical season from one of those players given the conservative philosophy behind their passing defense.

In accordance with it being more scheme than the players themselves who are responsible for the modest stats, there were multiple instances the last few games of quick instincts resulting in decent pressure without the blitz. The best instance of this was against Oregon, where the pass rushers quickly diagnosed Justin Herbert’s bootleg and got the sack. Another sack that stood out was against ASU where a double stunt got to Daniels on 3rd down. Obviously this didn’t take any diagnostics, but it was good execution on everyone’s part in slowing down the offensive line and collapsing the pocket.

In the linebackers, this is the first year Washington State has played without Peyton Pelluer in the program since 2012. No, that’s not a typo. Another loss for this unit was the departure of sophomore Fa’avae Fa’avae, who looked to be a potential future pillar of the team last year before ending up in the transfer portal a couple weeks ago. Further losses include Dillon Sherman and Dominick Silvels, who have been mysteriously absent this year, Silvels with personal issues and Sherman theoretically with injuries, although both these cases have been vague.

Luckily for the Cougs, Jahad Woods has taken up much of that slack as the 11th leading tackler in the country with 111, 60 of which have been solo. Justus Rogers has been his partner in the inside, with “Rush” linebacker Willie Taylor alongside them as an outside linebacker-pass rush combo guy. Behind Taylor in the two-deep is Ron Stone, previously mentioned for being third on the team in sacks.

The secondary is interesting in that there’s a lot of relatively new faces for the first time in what feels like a while; in the past, it always felt to me like WSU’s secondary had significant year-to-year continuity where I’d start my research and invariably recognize all but one, maybe two players from years past; Pippins, Molton, Singleton, etc. This year, the continuity goes on with senior CB Marcus Strong, but that’s it. Pippins has been gone for two years, Molton graduated, and Singleton left the team. In fact, Mike Leach’s defensive back room has had something of a mass exodus lately — along with Singleton transferring earlier, one week during the season saw the departure of starting corner Daniel Isom, backup nickel Hunter Dale, and JuCo transfer Shahman Moore.

Along with Strong, this leaves his corner counterpart George Hicks, safeties Bryce Beekman and Skylar Thomas, and Armani Marsh at nickel, with the rest of the two-deep all freshmen or sophomores.

Oddly enough, despite this turnover in the secondary, the pass defense looks more consistent than the run, whose problems I’ll talk about in a moment. They’re a microcosm of the whole defense in that they’re reactive instead of bringing the game to the offense and aren’t creating a whole lot of havoc, but overall, were I a Coug fan, I’d trust the pass defense the most.

That being said, the lack of reps for many of the defensive backs becomes apparent against the run or when approaching receivers after-the-catch: they’re not great tacklers if a pass-catcher can get a few steps post-catch, and they’re not super trustworthy to be in the right position on running plays. This was evident last week, as Jermar Jefferson had a 54 yard rushing touchdown, as has it been in prior games, too; against ASU, Eno Benjamin had a huge touchdown run up the middle, and the same thing happened against Oregon with a gigantic CJ Verdell touchdown run again up the middle, and another inside Verdell run that was very close to going for a touchdown, as well.

This is of course not 100% the fault of the secondary — after all, it’s the D line and linebackers’ fault that running backs even got to that far in the first place, but generally speaking, I wouldn’t trust the safeties to often have strong instincts against the run.

Overall, this defense reminds me a lot of Colorado and Oregon State’s in that they’re just kind of there. Of course, we all know how that worked out for Washington’s offense the last two weeks, so I’m not taking anything for granted here. And that being said, there’s only two senior starters, and there’s been enough unexpected turnover between DC Claeys, the linebackers, and the defensive backs, that it’s impressive they’re holding up even this well. In other words, while WSU will probably never become a defensive powerhouse under Leach, there’s little reason to think this is the new normal and I fully expect them to rebound a bit next year.

Bottom Line

The main takeaway is that Salvon Ahmed and Richard Newton should be able to have statistically significant games. Of course, we also thought that last week, and everyone knows how that went.

In all seriousness, if Washington’s offense plays like how it looked at its best this season (or even at its mediocre-est, honestly), they shouldn’t have much difficulty. But at Washington’s worst, like the last two weeks, Stanford, and the first half of Arizona, that offense could probably lose to literally anybody. And WSU’s defense, despite having its own struggles this year, does fall under the umbrella of “literally anybody.”

So, I suppose: if Hamdan sticks to the run and the offensive line doesn’t become as useless in the run as they were last week, Ahmed, Newton, and/or McGrew could have huge games and be the backbone of this offense. But if the offensive line is as turnstile-adjacent as they were on Saturday — even Jesus fused with Allah in the body of Myles Gaskin wouldn’t be able to do anything. I suppose we’ll see in a couple days.

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