Washington State was able to finish off a game Colorado team Saturday night behind a gutsy performance from backup QB Peyton Bender, a strong running game -- and another stellar showing from the defense. I see three main tenets in play here. In no particular order:
1. The Scheme
I’ve mentioned this before: Alex Grinch has done an excellent job identifying the strengths of his players and developing a plan around them.
Grinch classifies his base D as a 3-4 on the official WSU releases -- the reality is that his base scheme is a 4-2-5, one that adds an extra safety who plays outside of the box to the wide side of the field. This allows for a ton of flexibility in run or pass situations as long you can find the right player for that nickel spot.
The nickel has to be willing to read and step up on run plays as well as drop back and cover slot receivers. Between Isaac Dotson and Parker Henry, Grinch knew he had two guys that could play in this spot effectively and most importantly, has utilized them to the fullest.
The other main advantage to this base four-man front is that it creates better pass rush opportunities for the Cougar defensive lineman. The last few years WSU has been in a base three-man front which made it tough for guys like Destiny Vaeao or Darryl Paulo on the inside to get to the quarterback as they were outmanned at the line of scrimmage. Now at least one of them is getting a one-on-one block with an offensive guard.
More importantly, Grinch has utilized a number of other fronts to confuse opposing offenses.
Most people have noticed a number of opponent false start penalties the last few weeks due to the WSU defensive line executing a shift just before the snap. Shifting from a four-man front to a five-man front has a two-fold effect: it can cause the offensive to panic and jump, as well as throw off their previous blocking assignments.
In most situations, the inside three defensive lineman will then execute a twist that creates even more issues for the offense once the ball is snapped.
The result is that it's become increasingly difficult for opposing teams to consistently execute basic blocking schemes against the Washington State defense.
Meanwhile, the growth in the Cougar secondary has also helped Grinch’s schemes. Against Colorado, he used a number of blitzes with man-coverage behind them. This can be risky as it exposes you to big plays, but if the defensive backs can hold up in coverage there is an increased chance of the quarterback holding onto the ball too long and taking a sack.
One thing I didn’t like about the defense the past few years was the number of zone blitzes WSU ran. Against good spread offense schemes and quality quarterbacks in the Pac-12, zone blitzes leave too much open space on the back end for teams to exploit. That's no longer the case in 2015.
2. The Squad
This is a unique group of players on the defensive side because there is really no superstar. It is a collection of quality, selfless athletes playing for each other. They know the offense is going to get the headlines, but seem confident in knowing they will be the key to winning games down the stretch.
We knew going into the season that the defensive line was going to be the strength of the Cougar D, but I have been very impressed with the development of the secondary.
The emergence of safety/nickel Shalom Luani and corners Marcellus Pippins and Darrien Molton, along with CB Charleston White, has given Grinch, also the DBs coach, the freedom to play more man coverage -- even in blitz packages.
In addition, guys like CB Kirkland Parker and safety/nickel Isaac Dotson have been used more in recent weeks in passing situations to put more DBs on the field. Rarely have we seen this group give up big plays downfield because they are disciplined with their eyes, and have shown much-improved ball skills.
Grinch has his Cougar defense playing at a level we haven’t seen in a long time and a huge part of that is the WSU corners and safeties are playing disciplined, confident and aggressive football -- that allows Grinch to throw a number of different looks at opposing offenses.
And I also firmly believe the way Parker Henry stepped in at the nickel spot when Dotson went down with an injury was a turning point for this defense.
Henry's aggressiveness and playmaking ability, coupled with MIK Peyton Pelluer’s growth and always steady WIL Jeremiah Allison, has created a dynamic linebacker unit at Wazzu that made the defensive front even better.
3. The Staff
It goes without saying first-year DC Grinch is the primary reason this unit has seen so much improvement. But I would be hugely remiss if I didn't give some kudos given to the other defensive assistant coaches --they have done an unbelievable job of coaching up their respective units.
Whether it is the linebacker corps with Ken Wilson and Roy Manning (Rush and nickel) or the defensive line with Joe Salave’a, each group is playing consistent football -- and all the way down the depth chart.
It is a testament to how these coaches handle their meeting rooms so that guys like Henry or DL Hercules Mata’afa have stepped in so seamlessly.
In addition, a number of players are being asked to be very multiple in the way they line up, and that can often present unique challenges. Sometimes Pelluer is his natural comfort zone in his standard middle 'backer position, but other times he is on the line of scrimmage in a five man front -- a role that requires him to rush the passer or take on blocks at the point of attack.
The fact that Wilson is able to get Pelluer to play at such a high level in a variety of different situations shows how good these WSU assistant coaches are.
But back to Ginch -- in the final analysis it all comes back to Grinch for me. He's been so consistent with his vision from Day One.
I remember visiting WSU spring practices and watching him coach with so much passion and intensity. The defense has taken on his persona and plays with exactly the same fire. More importantly and I'll say it again, Grinch clearly identified the strengths of his defensive unit early on and built a plan around that.
It is crystal clear WSU at 8-3, 6-2 Pac-12, has found something special with Grinch. His ability to structure the defense as well as motivate the players has created a unique, very successful combination. The players trust his scheme and have bought into his style.
With an offense as potent as the Air Raid, all the Cougar D really needs to do is force a reasonable amount of turnovers and hold teams to enough field goals in the red zone.
But headed into this huge matchup in the Apple Cup, the Wazzu defense is going to be tested once again and asked to potentially help a backup QB win at Husky Stadium. The best part about that for CougFans is that no matter who is behind center, Washington State's improved play on defense gives this team the chance to win in any situation.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw 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 five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.