Spring Ball Day 8: Washington State defense is stellar in first scrimmage of spring

PULLMAN -- The Cougar defense has been impressive all spring long but may have made its biggest statement yet in the first spring scrimmage. Whether it was the pass rush getting to the quarterback, the athletic linebackers making plays in space or the secondary blanketing receivers, the Washington State D made things difficult for the offense all scrimmage long.

The 85-play scrimmage started with quarterback Peyton Bender leading the second team offense against the first team defense.

Bender was 4 of 5 passing on the drive including a 40 yard strike to H receiver Kyle Sweet. Sweet ran a seam route and rose up and over his defender to make a spectacular catch for the big gain. This play was the only first down of the drive, due in part to a sack by rush linebacker Nnamdi Oguayo and impressive tackle in space by nickel back Kirkland Parker.

The drive ended with an Erik Powell field goal.

The next drive featured quarterback Luke Falk and the first team offense against the first team defense.

On the first play Falk hit running back Gerard Wicks on a screen pass and Wicks turned the short completion into an explosive 40-yard gain.

Wicks has looked extremely good out of the backfield this spring and from my chair seems to be leading the extremely close position battle at running back between he and Jamal Morrow and James Williams (Keith Harrington is inactive this spring with an injury).

After hitting Gabe Marks on an a dig route and River Cracraft on an option route, Falk finish the drive 3 of 4, but the offense eventually stalled and the drive ended with a Matt Abramo field goal.

The 1’s stayed on the field for the next drive, but the ball was spotted at the edge of the red zone at the defense’s 20-yard line. The offense had just stalled in the red zone twice in a row and Mike Leach wanted to get some extra work in this area of the field.  Even with the extra reps, the stingy Cougar defense still did not allow the offense to get across the goal line.

Defensive lineman Garrett McBroom (pictured above) saw reps with the first team defense today and made the most of them. On this particular drive he made a big stop in the back field on Wicks that put the offense behind the chains and inspired the defense to make another red zone stop.

The offensive and defensive 3’s took the next drive and this included quarterback Christian Jorgensen. He was 4 of 7 passing -- he missed a few throws that he is capable of making, but he led his group down the field and finished the drive by hitting Kaleb Fossum on a post route in the end zone for a score.

Running back Alijah Lee looked great running and catching the ball in this period with the 3’s and adds even more depth to the Cougar running back corps. The defensive effort on this drive was highlighted by linebacker Kameron Powell and defensive end Nick Begg, who are both learning new positions this spring. These two both found a way to get to Jorgensen and post a sack on separate plays.

The second team offense took the field again on the next drive, but this time it was Tyler Hilinski’s turn to quarterback the offense. Hilinski’s group went four straight plays and did not pick up a first down, including a fourth down stop by Parker at the nickel back spot on a receiver screen.

Leach was not happy with the unsuccessful drive, so they tried it again.

The offense picked up a first down on a short pass to Williams were he hurdled a defender. This looked to be an amazing play until Williams was leveled by rush linebacker Dylan Hanser. The tackle ignited the defense and they did not give up another first down on the drive.

Falk and the 1’s took the field again and the drive was similar to their last -- early success, but could not finish.

Falk had some nice completions early including a 5-yard option route to Cracraft who broke a tackle and ended up with a gain of 15 hashes on the play. The offense also ran the ball well, including going under center for a snap and handing the ball to a shifty Morrow who picked up 8 yards. 

However, a sack by defensive end Hercules Mata'afa turned things around for the defense as they came up with yet another red zone stop. Kicker Mitchell Cox finished the drive off with a field goal.

The 3’s took the field again with Jorgenson at the helm. He struggled with his accuracy early as he missed his first two throws, but Kainoa Wilson ran a great sail route and Jorgensen fired him a pass on third down and moved the chains. He then hit Freshman Z receiver Isaiah Johnson on a screen pass and the January enrollee broke a tackle and made an impressive run for a 20-yard gain that put the offense into field goal range.

Although they seemed to be knocking on the door, the defensive line was not ready to give up points as Begg and Kingston Fernandez made consecutive sacks to push the offense outside of field goal range and end the drive. This had defensive line coach Joe Salave'a excited as he met Begg at the hash for a chest bump.

The 2’s were back on the field for the next drive with Bender at quarterback.

The drive started with Bender taking a shot over the top to Sweet only to have safety Willie Roach use his long arms to bat the ball away. Roach is a very physically gifted defensive back and he may be a walk on but if he continues to develop, he could develop into a big time contributor in the Cougar secondary this season.

Bender got back on track with a completion to Cracraft who broke a tackle and ended up with a gain of nearly 40 yards.

Cracraft has always been a great route runner, but he has shown an increasing ability to get yards after the catch this spring. If he can continue to develop this part of his game, he will be an even bigger handful for Pac-12 secondaries in 2016.

Linebacker Nate DeRider seemed to have ended the drive after he sacked Bender and recorded a tackle for loss on a running back on consecutive plays, but Bender got the offense back into the red zone with a string of completions. Running back Williams eventually punched it into the end zone from 11 yards out to cap off the scoring drive.

The 1’s took the field for their last reps of the day and before the drive began, Falk had some strong words for his offense – the frustration throughout the No. 1 offense in not being able to put the ball in the end zone was palpable.

Falk’s speech helped inspire the offense to move straight down the field and the drive ended with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Falk to Sweet.

Leach was obviously happy with the result of the drive, but he and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wanted to get a little bit more work out of the team and the ball was backed up for another drive.

The offense did some good things here, including a 20-yard gain on a screen pass to Tavares Martin, but the linebackers led the defense to a stop.

Mike linebacker Peyton Pelluer flew out to the flats to make an amazing tackle on shifty running back Morrow on a swing pass and his tackle and post play celebration got the momentum back for the defense.

Will linebacker Frankie Luvu then made a couple of big plays of his own as he brought down H receiver Sweet in space for a short gain, and tackled a running back behind the line on a screen pass. These plays by Pelluer and Luvu ended the No. 1 offense’s quest for back to back scores.

Luvu has done an excellent job this spring in my book, he looks to me at this point to be the front runner in the position battle at Will linebacker.

Hilinski then took his final drive with the 2’s, and also the last drive of the Cougs' scrimmage.

This was Hilinski’s best drive of the day -- he had several good completions to a variety of different receivers and finished the drive 7 of 10 passing.

His one questionable throw actually ended up as a touchdown -- Hilinski fired a ball over the middle that was almost intercepted by DeRider at linebacker, but was instead tipped up and caught in the end zone by Y receiver Kyrin Priester. And that’s how Day No. 8 ended for the Cougs.

In the first scrimmage of the spring, the offense did not execute at the level that we are used to seeing from them, plain and simple.

But having spent the past four years under Leach at Washington State, my take is this Cougar defense is shaping up to be the best group that the Cougars have had in years.  There are seven more practices remaining in the spring, and I get the feeling the offense and defense will continue to make each other better as they work towards their goals for the 2016 season.

NOTABLE NOTES:
Cole Madison, Harrington, Paris Taylor, C.J. Dimry, Isaac Dotson and Drew Griffin were all inactive today.

Charleston White moved back to corner from safety.

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