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Although it will probably never be the strength of the Washington State football team with Mike Leach as the head coach, the defense seemed to make strides throughout 2013. This season the veteran group of defensive lineman and linebackers should be able to take the pressure off an inexperienced secondary. Unfortunately, on Thursday night this was not the case.
The Rutgers offensive line consistently opened holes in the running game and kept the Cougar pass rushers away from quarterback Gary Nova. In an altogether disappointing performance for the Washington State defense four things really stood out to me.
1) Who is the enforcer?
In the absence of recently graduated Deone Bucannon, someone on the defense is going to need to step up as a physical presence. This "enforcer" will set the tone week in and week out for the Cougars. On Thursday night we saw flashes from guys like Taylor Taliulu and Tana Pritchard but no one stood out as a guy who would consistently provide the emotional shot in the arm the Cougs needed on defense. I am interested to see who steps into that roll in the coming weeks.
2) Mighty surprised at the linebacker play:
Coming into the season much was made of the Cougars' experience on the defensive line. I still feel this is a strength as Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole both showed the ability to control the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield. What I was thoroughly unimpressed with was the play of the linebackers. Most of the big runs by Rutgers were due to this unit's inability to get off blocks. Worse yet, when they did get off blocks the linebackers, including normally steady Darryl Monroe, missed a large number of tackles. For the Cougs to be successful against quality opponents who run the football (I.e. Oregon, Arizona St, and Stanford) their linebackers must play much more physical.
3) Where were the attempts to bring pressure?
From a coaching standpoint I could not understand why defensive coordinator Mike Breske refused to bring more pressure throughout the game. The first play notwithstanding, Rutgers QB Gary Nova seemed uncomfortable for much of the game in any passing situation. Breske rarely added an extra safety in the box and seemed hesitant to bring pressure with the linebackers. Despite potentially opening the defense up for a big pass play these two things would have helped decrease the Scarlett Knights' ability to run the football.
4) Still looking for more of that speed:
There's been much said about Washington State's ability to recruit speed since Mike Leach took over as head coach. We have seen a number of instances of this on offense, but have yet to see itself truly manifest on defense. On the first play of the game Leonte Carroo ran by Tracy Clark with little difficulty. Paul James consistently got to the edge on toss sweeps, including a 56-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. As WSU prepares for one of the most difficult schedules in the country it must find a way to compensate for its lack of team speed on defense, based on what I saw in Week 1.
Although these are not all overnight fixes, I believe there is a foundation there for the Cougar defense to see much improvement in the coming weeks.
Last year we saw Mike Breske make scheme and personnel changes throughout the year that benefitted the team. I expect the defensive staff to make the same impact in 2014.
Regardless of where this defense is headed, this is going to be a team that must put up a lot of points to win. The silver lining from Thursday night is that Connor Halliday and the offense appear to be ready to take the next step. And the way the defense played against Rutgers, the offense may well be the Cougars' best hope of returning to a bowl game in 2014-15.
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 and then the past two seasons with Montreal. He also is the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.