Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Alex Brink

RAISE YOUR HAND if, four games into the 2013 Washington State football season, you thought the most talked about topic would be the Cougar defense. I can assure you I wasn't one of them. We all know that "defense wins championships," but with a Mike Leach-led team it always seems to be offense that is the dominating factor.

Despite the blowout score, the Idaho game offers a great example of how the defense will support a growing offense during 2013. It took Connor Halliday & Co. much of the first half to get their footing. They were helped mightily by a suffocating defense that forced two turnovers and kept Idaho pinned on its side of the 50-yard-line. Of the 28 Cougar points scored in the first half, 14 came off of short fields thanks to the Deone Bucannon interception and Ioane Gauta forced fumble. The last touchdown of the half was aided in large part by the great field position the Cougars got when the defense forced Idaho to punt from deep in its own territory.

Twenty-one points were a direct result of the Cougar defense's ability to create turnovers and favorable field position for the offense. If you add in the fourth-and-two stop in the second half, that's 28 of 42 points that can be attributed to Washington State's dominating defensive play against Idaho.


The 3 things that make the WSU defense so good:

1. The evolution of the BUCK linebacker:
Mike Breske's version of the 3-4 defense allows the hybrid defensive end/linebacker to make plays all over the field. It is vital to have the right athlete at this position who can stand up and drop into coverage or put his hand on the ground to rush.. Kache Palacio had a great night against Idaho doing both. The advantage of using a BUCK linebacker is the multiple looks the defense can present to an offense. If he is standing up, more like a traditional outside linebacker, the quarterback has to account for him in coverage as well as a potential rusher. When his hand is on the ground, like a defensive end, there is a mismatch because of his speed on an offensive tackle. Against Idaho, Coach Breske used Palacio as a defensive end in passing situations and then worked "tackle-end games" to create pressure on the offensive line. A tackle-end game is when the defensive tackle and defensive end cross in front of each other to confuse their offensive counter parts. This allows the Cougars to still drop seven men into coverage while getting heat on the quarterback. The week before, against Southern Utah, Breske opted for more five- man pressures out of a three-down-lineman-front, which put six men in coverage. The Cougar defense will continue to cause problems for teams because of the multiple looks they can present using the BUCK linebacker.

2. The ability to play zone coverage:
In their first four games, the Cougars have played mostly zone coverage with a small amount of man mixed in. Many times, defensive coordinators play zone to hide their players' athletic deficiencies and protect them from getting beat one-on-one. This is not the case with the Washington State defense. Coach Breske is able to call a variety of zone coverage because of the Cougars' overall athleticism, not lack thereof. The linebackers play well in space and do a good job of making throwing windows small for the opposing quarterback. The secondary, as evidenced early in the year, has great range and ball skills. Against Idaho, Breske called mostly Cover 4, a coverage where the corners and safeties each take a deep quarter of the field. Putting four players deep is obviously good against the vertical passing game, but it also puts pressure on the underneath defenders to cover a lot of ground. This is where WSU's athleticism comes into play, because the 3 (sometimes 4, depending on if the BUCK rushes) linebackers are fast enough to rally to all underneath zones. In a pass heavy Pac-12 Conference, the Cougars will fare well because of the ability to mix up coverage.

3. Leadership:
This starts from the top. Mike Breske is a coach who exudes confidence and that attitude is clearly passed on to his players. The passion that this defense plays with for 60 minutes is obvious. For evidence, you don't have to look any farther than the goal-line-stand that preserved the shutout against Idaho. These players take pride in their craft. The starters were begging to go back in a game that was already over, just to ensure that zero stayed on the scoreboard. That is a powerful statement. Even with a young roster, guys like Deone Bucannon and Darryl Monroe hold everyone around them accountable. This is going to be vital because as the season progresses there are going to be ups and downs. So far it has been mostly positive for the Cougar defense. The key will be how this leadership group handles the adversity when it comes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State from 2004-2007, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history – and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing three years in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2010-2012. Brink is currently the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10 .

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