And not because they’re putting up amazing stats. They aren’t. But they are night and day better than last season, elevating from the bottom-third of the conference (or worse) in most statistical measures last season to the middle-third this season.
When it comes to winning and losing, a leap like that cannot be understated.
For me, the Cougars’ goal-line stand against Arizona State last Saturday is a metaphor for the way this defense has played all season.
Confident, spirited and together.
With a little more than six minutes left in the first quarter, ASU was on the verge of going up 21-0. In other words, backs-against-the-wall in a big way for the Cougars. This is where the confidence, spirit and togetherness showed itself.
On third-and-one from the WSU two, a wall of anthracite went up and safety Shalom Luani — one of my favorite players — took down Demario Richard for a one-yard loss.
Back to the goal line.
Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was so confident with the way his club had been moving the ball that he opted to go for it on fourth-and-two at the three rather than kick the chip-shot field goal to go up 17-0.
Mount Anthracite reared its head again and QB Alex Bercovici’s bootleg was sniffed out by — you guessed it — the Pride of Pago Pago, Shalom Luani, and rush end Ivan McLennan.
Red-zone stop. Fourth-down stop. No points.
And the momentum irreversibly on the Cougar side. The Devils, after running up 14 points on their first two drives, managed just 10 the rest of the day.
The Cougar D was getting gashed early because they were not gap strong, and were over-pursuing both the backs and the QB on the zone read.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his staff made great adjustments after the early breakdowns. They kept the ends as contain, and slow-played Bercovici on the line of scrimmage by making him hand the ball off. With the run contained, they were daring Bercovici to beat them through the air.
This Cougar D is tough and salty. And they’re also forcing turnovers — 16 so far in nine games. That's not world-beater stuff, but compared to last year -- when they forced a total of seven the entire season -- it's pure gold.
The Air Raid, we know, can move the ball all-day long. But without a legitimate defense to complement it, your fans aren’t eyeing a Jan. 2 bowl game here on the 12th of November.
Look at the great teams in Cougar history.
QB Jason Gesser was the face of the 2001 Sun and 2003 Rose bowl squads, but remember who all was lining up on D in those days. It was a laundry list of all-time greats, like Lamont Thompson, Rien Long, Marcus Truant, Jason David, Erik Coleman, Will Derting, D.D. Acholonu and others.
Same thing on the 1998 Rose Bowl team. QB Ryan Leaf and the Fab Five receivers were amazing, but that defense was rocking with guys like Leon Bender, Dorian Boose, Steve Gleason and Duane Stewart.
The 1992 Copper Bowl team featured Drew Bledsoe, Shaumbe Wright-Fair and all those stellar receivers, but the defense was just plain fun to watch with Lew Bush, Ron Childs, Singor Mobley, John Rushing, et. al.
Jim Walden was known for his offenses at WSU, but the 1981 Holiday Bowl team that I was part of was led by a bunch of junkyard dogs on defense, with the likes of linemen Mike Walker, Ken Collins, Matt Elisara and linebacker Lee Blakeney, the all-time leading tackler in school history.
I could give other examples, but the bottom line is this: If you look at the most successful football teams at WSU over the years, the offense was complemented by a defense with a nasty attitude. That’s not to say those defenses were perfect (although the 1994 Palouse Posse comes close, which they actually needed to be given how poor the offense was), but they played with swagger.
They played with confidence, spirit and togetherness.
That’s what I saw in the goal-line stand last Saturday against ASU.
Offense will always get the publicity, but the truly memorable teams have defenses that won’t quit. The 2015 Cougar defense may bend, sometimes a lot, but they never quit. So here’s a shout out to those forgotten lads on the DEFENSIVE SIDE for the success WSU is enjoying this season.
Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.