Cougar D making the headlines

PULLMAN – Washington State defensive players admit they occasionally get a bit miffed about all the attention given to the team's explosive "Air Raid" offense. On Monday, it was the offense's turn to be jealous of the defense, after senior cornerback Damante Horton was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week and National Defensive Player of the Week by Athlon Sports.

Horton also was tabbed National Defensive Back of the Week by College Football Performance Awards. In addition, he won Defensive Player of the Week honors in the Pac-12 Conference.

Horton intercepted two passes in Saturday's 10-7 win at 25th-ranked USC. He ran the first one back 70 yards for WSU's only touchdown, then picked off a second pass late in the game to preserve the win.

"A lot of it was the defensive play calling," the modest, soft-spoken Horton said Monday. "Our defensive coordinator (Mike Breske) called great calls."

All four of Horton's other college interceptions came during a four-game stretch in 2011. He made honorable mention all-conference that season, but he lost his starting job midway through last season.

"It motivated me, not being on the field," Horton said. "It made me want to play even more."

Horton said he "didn't really like it" when he was benched last season, but he believes it helped him to now be playing the best football of his career.

"I feel like I'm playing a lot better," Horton said. "My teammates, they've been helping me out, staying on me, making sure I stay focused."

Horton lined up opposite Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee most of the game Saturday. Lee, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver last year, was held to seven catches and 27 yards.

"I love competition," Horton said, "so whenever I get to go against a good receiver, I love it."

NO TEAM IN THE NATION that has played two games has allowed fewer passing yards (153) than Washington State. Horton said the Cougars have developed "a little swagger" on defense.

"I feel like we're playing together," Horton said. "Everyone's coming out feeling like we can stop people."

Horton, a criminal justice major, grew up in the inner city in Oakland, Calif. He hopes to play pro football, but if that doesn't pan out, Horton said he plans to move back to Oakland to work as a juvenile probation officer.

"Back home, I know a lot of kids that are struggling," said Horton, a self-described "mama's boy" who was raised by his mother, a social worker. "I just want to help out wherever I can."

Horton has certainly helped out the Cougars this year.

ANOTHER KEY defensive player, tackle Ioane "Junior" Gauta, met with the media Monday along with Horton, wide receiver Dominique Williams and running back Marcus Mason.

Gauta was not shy about discussing the defense's goals for the year.

"We pride ourselves on being the best defense in the nation," he said. "That's how we played on Saturday, and that's how we're going to continue to play throughout the season."

Asked if he was surprised at the defense's dominant performance against USC, Williams said, "Not at all. They've been getting after us in practice. We knew what our defense is capable of doing."

Gauta said WSU defensive players have "a ‘dog' mentality. I'm not talking about U-Dub, I'm talking about a real dog mentality.

"We're very powerful right now, but we have a lot of humility and humbleness. Our defensive front, we don't want nobody knowing about us."

The Cougars were delighted when dozens of students and other fans greeted the team upon its return from Los Angeles in the wee hours Sunday morning.

"For people to stay up until 4-something in the morning just to say ‘hi' to us and to cheer us on, that was really, really cool," Mason said. "That means a lot to us."

"It was awesome," Gauta said. "We came out of the bus, we see people clapping and cheering. That's pretty much what Pullman is. It's family oriented. People love to see the Cougs win."

Williams, who zoomed 50 yards on a screen pass late in the game to set up Andrew Furney's game-winning field goal last Saturday, found extra joy in winning close to his hometown of Pomona, Calif.

"It is a sweet win," Williams said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it; it felt good to beat USC, especially because everyone back home grew up around USC."

AFTER BEING UNDERDOGS on the road in their first two games, the Cougars will be favored in home games the next two Saturdays.

Southern Utah (2-0) comes to town this Saturday at 3:30 p.m., followed by Idaho (0-2) for homecoming at 7:30 p.m. on Sept 21. The Pac-12 Networks televise both games.

"It's always amazing to be back in Pullman and play a game," Williams said.

"I love the fans," Horton said. "Everyone is so into the (WSU) sports, especially football. Everyone loves us."

Everyone, indeed, loves a winner. WSU players pledged not take Southern Utah lightly, even though the Thunderbirds are a Football Championship Subdivision team.

"You never want to underestimate any team," Williams said. "You game prep the same way as if you were playing Alabama."

"USC is in the past," Mason said. "We can't keep thinking about what happened last week. Even though we got a win last week, we still have a lot to improve on."

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