WSU vs. EWU: Skyler Cracraft’s 1-on-1 matchup spotlight

PULLMAN – There are lots of intriguing matchups that will unfold Saturday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Network). But the one I’m most interested in seeing play out during Washington State’s season opener against Eastern Washington is between second-year sophomore cornerback Darrien Molton and fifth-year seniors and star EWU wideout Cooper Kupp. Here’s why.

These two will definitely find themselves in scenarios that match them up one-on-one, and Molton will have to defend Kupp at times when he doesn’t have any help from the safeties.

Molton is one of the best defensive players the Cougs have and the argument can be made Kupp is the best receiver in college football, regardless of division.

And have no doubt, Kupp will get his touches and put up numbers regardless of who is defending him this season. His 6-2, 215-pound frame alone is cause for concern. He has speed, power, and the elusiveness to shake tackles and defenders.

If you pull up one of Kupp’s highlight reels on YouTube, such as this one vs. Oregon at the bottom of this article, you see that he’s definitely a deep threat. But he also catches a lot of short passes – and it’s what he does after the catch that allows him to make a defense look flat out silly. His 246 receiving yards and 3 TDs against Oregon last season speaks for itself.

But what I want to see from Molton most is how well he can guard one of the nation’s best when he doesn’t have any help over the top.

Slants, digs, hitches, corners, outs, screens, comebacks – all of these intermediate type routes put corners in a position where they’re in the open field after the catch is made.

Can Molton make that open field tackle? Can he come down hill and defend those short passes? Can he jam Kupp at the line? Can he stay on top of his long routes? Can he put up a fight against the deep ball? Can he force Kupp out of bounds? Can he make the quarterback look away from Kupp?

All of these questions figure to be answered by the time the clock hits zeros on Saturday night.

Molton has been facing top notch outside receivers like Gabe Marks, Isaiah Johnson, Tavares Martin and others since early August in fall ball. He’s been able to answer some of those questions in practice, but can he answer in the affirmative when it counts, in the game?

Or ... will he get picked on? Will he miss tackles? Will he get burned deep? Will he need constant help? Will d-coordinator and secondary coach Alex Grinch need to adjust his game plan at halftime in order to stop Kupp?  Molton is already a very good corner, but he never had the benefit of a redshirt season and he has but one season of Pac-12 level football under his belt. And now he’s going up against one of the country’s best.

Saturday’s game will help prove just where Molton is at this point in his career. If he can perform at a high level and take some of Kupp’s game away, people outside of Pullman are going to start talking about a defensive star in the making. If not, it will show the young corner which specific areas he needs to tighten up before taking that next step.

* Corners are at a disadvantage in the pass game before the ball is even snapped. The receiver knows the play, he knows where he’s going, whereas corners are forced to react and use their natural instincts. A split second can make all the difference between one heckuva defensive play by a corner, and giving up six. When the rubber meets the road, corners have to rely on their coaching, technique and training in order to put them in a position to have the best chance at success.

* EWU is known for its high powered offense, one that uses Kupp all over the field, but I think that this game will really come down to how well Luke Falk and the Cougar O play against the Eagles’ D -- from beginning to end. If the Cougs fall behind early, it could take them a long time to reclaim the lead if the defense can't find their footing early on. I don’t see that as the likely scenario, but it is possible. As long as the Cougs start strong on offense and don’t get overly complacent, I see them cruising to victory and notching the first win for Mike Leach in a season opener.

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