Commentary: Patience best course with WSU D?

WASHINGTON STATE’S defense has been the focus of hand-wringing among the Cougar faithful since -- literally -- the very first play of 2014. The narrow loss to Oregon and second-half comeback against Utah tempered the angst. But the 60-points subsequently yielded to Cal, followed by the fourth-quarter woes at Stanford, returned matters to the forefront.

The firing of special teams coach Erik Russell after the loss to Cal was greeted warmly by Cougar fans, but it simply begged the question: Given the state of the defense, is d-coordinator Mike Breske next?

While the Cougar offense is far from perfect, there is no getting around this fact: they are averaging four more points per game this season (35.0) than they did last season and 15 more points per outing than in Leach’s first year on the Palouse. By contrast, the Cougars are surrendering more points -- and average of 35.0 per game -- than they did in 2013 or 2012.

You can manipulate stats in many ways, but old fashioned points for and points against are hard to quibble with, and the trajectories of the two sides of the ball over the last 2 ½ seasons are going in opposite directions.

Over the last nine games, which dates to last year’s Apple Cup, the Cougs are 2-7 and have given up massive yardage and points to teams that honestly just aren’t as good as they looked against WSU. While the Cougs played solid defense against the likes of UW, Utah and Nevada, they couldn’t stop teams the caliber of Colorado State, Cal or Rutgers. Against those three, WSU was favored to win but gave up no less than 41 points in each contest and lost.

Those who know Breske and those who know his background believe it’s a question of time before his system clicks -- that he just needs more athletes, and more experience for the young ones he already has, in order to roll out the hyper-aggressive D he likes.

I have to admit that seems like a solid and fair assessment.

Also, let’s be honest. Leach is known nationally for his offense. Prime-time prospects on that side of the ball are instantly attracted to the Air Raid. Not so with elite-level defenders. Almost by definition, it’s going to take more time to build up that side of the ball.

The Cougs may not acquire a critical mass of truly top-tier FBS athletes on defense -- and that’s not a deal breaker. With the Air Raid scoring 35 a game -- and likely more given the trend line since Leach became head coach -- the D just needs to keep things manageable.

Over in the “fire Breske now” camp, the sentiment is that the coach has had enough time to right the ship. This group cites personnel groupings, play calls and overall player development among their Beske grievances.

While each of those issue areas appear to have improved noticeably since Leach and Breske arrived in Pullman, the bottom line isn’t showing improvement.

The anti-Breske contingent believes a bigger name with a better pedigree (Breske’s previous coaching stops were Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado and Wayne State) could at once fix the defense and bring some buzz to defensive recruiting.

Perhaps someone with a heavy SEC or Big Ten background who has had a slight fall from grace and is looking for a soft landing spot to reboot? Or maybe a former NFL coach? Or perhaps a promotion from within for Mr. Street Cred, defensive line coach Joe Salavea, who was highly sought by other Pac-12 schools this past off season.

I think we can all agree that it would be silly for Leach to dump his current DC with only five games left on the schedule. The way the Cougars performed against Oregon and Utah have earned Breske at least the opportunity to prove something the rest of the way.

I’m in no particular camp at the moment, but I will say that I’ve defended Breske for this long and I appreciate some of the changes and, in my opinion, improvements he has made in both scheme and competitive nature by playing the hungrier and more athletic youngsters.

Breske has begun to blitz almost to a fault and he’s also burned some redshirts that I presume the staff was hoping to keep. But when the season, and possibly your job, are on the line it makes sense to go with the better natural ballers.

The Cougs are 2-5 this season. The special teams, of course, have been one game-turning play after another. But the defense has surrendered yards and TDs in bunches. And the one stat from last season that suggested the tide was turning -- turnovers forced -- seems but a distant dream today. In 2013 the Cougars forced 30 turnovers, the second-most in the Pac-12. That averaged out to 2.3 per game. This season the Cougs have generated just five, or 0.71 per game.

I really like Breske, as a person and as a coach. I think he knows his stuff. I also think that with the youngsters who are glimpsing bright futures, the Cougar defense could be pretty good at some point down the road.

Having said that, there is another factor to ponder in all this. It’s mental health. How many more losses can Leach, Bill Moos, Elson Floyd and the Cougar Nation take before a change is needed simply for change’s sake? Russell’s firing no doubt satiated all of the above. But is it enough to save Breske? Have we entered the all-but-over stretch with Breske the way we did with Ken Bone and Paul Wulff?

There’s a lot of football to be played between now and the end of November. And a bowl game, however remote, is still a possibility. But there would seem little doubt Leach and Moos are mapping various scenarios for how the season may play out and Mike Breske’s name, rightly or wrongly, no doubt figures prominently.

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