As good as QB's were, Cougar D stood out

SPOKANE - Here’s something very cool about Washington State's annual spring game: While very few people will remember the score, and most of the folks who showed up to cheer on the Crimson and Gray at Joe Albi Stadium on Saturday never even noticed that that Crimson held on for a 31-29 win. But they will remember how they charged the field to collect autographs from players and coaches.

They also no doubt noticed that both quarterbacks, Luke Falk and Peyton Bender, started off slowly and recovered to post very respectable stat lines. Falk completed 26 of 33 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Crimson offense on four scoring drives. Bender was 28 of 40 for 255 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

For those worried about what the Cougars will do offensively in the post-Connor Halliday era, rest assured. The Cougs look to have two pretty good QBs in Falk and Bender, and freshman Tyler Hilinski also threw two touchdown passes (9 of 14, 133 yards).

Mike Leach has said repeatedly that he will not name a starting quarterback until at least the midway point of fall practice, but he was pleased with the overall play of both Bender and Falk.

“I think they both started out a little slow and tried to make too much happen,” he said. “They both wound up throwing the ball pretty sharp. I thought their best was after the first couple series."

Bender had a beautiful touchdown throw to Daniel Lilienthal, who got well behind the coverage along the sideline. Bender found him at the goal line for the 38-yard score.

“(Lilienthal) is a guy who has really developed,” Leach said. “We want to find a way to really utilize him.”

Receiver Dom Williams had a great day -- in fact Leach called it his best practice of the spring.

“He’s always getting on me,” Williams laughed. “So I’ll take it.”

The senior had eight catches for 164 yards and caught both of Falk’s touchdown passes. He drew praise from both his coach and quarterback for the precise way he runs routes.

Williams had the first touchdown of the day, pulling in a short pass from Falk and sprinting through the secondary for a 55-yard score.

“How great did he play?” Falk said. “I threw it five yards and got a 55-yard touchdown out it.”

Receiver-turned-running back Keith Harrington had an impressive afternoon, catching 10 passes out of the backfield from Bender for 48 yards.

Leach said during the week that last year’s starters, Gerald Wicks and Jamal Morrow, would be hard-pressed to keep Harrington on the bench. Wicks, starting for the Crimson squad, carried 10 times for 30 yards and scored a touchdown, but did not catch a pass. Morrow carried twice for seven yards and a touchdown and caught one pass for three yards. Leach said he liked the way the two offensive lines played, especially considering the fact that some of those linemen were playing next to someone they weren’t necessarily used to playing against.

Senior left tackle Joe Dahl wasn’t one of them, playing alongside left guard Gunnar Eklund and center Riley Sorenson. That trio started together last season and Dahl and Eklund are three-year starters together.

“When you’ve played so much together it just gives you so much confidence,” Dahl said. “I think our offensive line is really coming together.”

BUT AS MUCH as anything else in the spring game, Saturday’s game was the coming-out party for first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

“I think our defense has improved steadily,” Leach said. “We’re getting better on the D-line and we’re starting to get some depth there. We’re getting some experience at linebacker and getting reps with the young secondary.”

Grinch was cautious when it came to how his defensive units played.

“Like every scrimmage, there’s good, there’s bad and there’s ugly,” he said. “You can kind of predict it to various degrees. I told those guys that we have 14 practices under out belts and the 15th coming (Tuesday). We’re better after Practice 14 than we were after Practice 1 and if you don’t think that’s true then you don’t remember Practice 1.”

Grinch and the defense have focused on developing technique while using a base defense that utilizes five defensive backs.

“That’s how I see it going forward: our base is a nickel package,” he said. "But knowing that going against some of the bigger personnel groups we’ll have to go with a sub package.

“When you focus on technique what happens is you get a certain level of confidence. It gives you a base line, a starting point. Sometimes the Xs and Os aren’t going to be in our favor. I’m not smart enough to make the right call every time, so what these guys need to do is focus on those techniques, know that that’s their baseline and combine that with effort. If you can do that, you have a chance to be successful. That will never go away.”

D-lineman Destiny Vaeao recorded a pair of sacks working against the Crimson starters up front.

“He is a powerful, large human,” Grinch said. “He has an ability to move people and I think he’s finding out over the course of the spring, and by our encouragement, that his calling card is his ability to move people – what we like to say is put offensive linemen on skates, You don’t always have to go around someone to affect the pass. You can take that would-be blocker and move him into the quarterback and he can do it at a pretty high level when he wants to.”

Cornerback Charleston White capped the scrimmage for the starting units with a beautiful over-the-shoulder interception in the middle of the field in coverage on Gabe Marks (pictured above).

“He’s done a nice job,” Grinch said. “What you see from Charleston is that when he commits to technique he has the chance to be a high-level corner in the Pac-12. I’ve been around some high-level corners in my career and I think the sky’s the limit (with him). But you can’t be a “potential” guy. You have to do it. We see flashes; we have to see more of those.”

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