The Cougar front 7 on D: Stand back from the windows after what Washington State did at Stanford

THE TABLES have turned, and oh how great it feels to Cougar fans to be on this end of a lopsided scoreboard and very different looking Pac-12 standings. Washington State, after knocking off pre-2016 Pac-12 powerhouses Stanford and Oregon, is one of only two teams undefeated in conference play along with rival Washington. How has Wazzu gotten here after an 0-2 start? For me, I start with the d-line.

As this Cougar defense continues to emerge, major props go to defensive line coach Joe Salave’a and his boys up front following WSU's 42-16 throttling of Stanford.
This was a unit that received plenty of doubt and criticism those first two weeks.  They got stood up by EWU. They weren’t difference makers against BSU.  But they sure have looked strong the past two weeks plus.  At Stanford, they put together their finest game yet.  And the thing is, from where I sit, they still haven’t come close to their potential.
I’ve seen every WSU practice (sans walk throughs) since fall camp began. And back in August, the d-line was a big question mark in my book. My biggest question then was how would the Cougs’ d-line rotation hold up against offensive lines like Stanford’s.   They provided an emphatic response on Saturday night.
The tip of the Cougar spear helped limit a Card offense, one that lives to run the ball, to 61 net ground yards and three rushing first downs. Oh my.
After holding one of the nation’s best running backs in Christian McCaffrey to 35 ground hashes and posting four sacks against the Cardinal, you have to wonder how what other thrills are in store the next seven regular season games.  And Exhibit A to unlocking that question is Hercules Mata’afa.
Mata’afa at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, looked like a man amongst boys at Stanford.  His motor, his desire to get into the Stanford backfield was fun to watch. The first two games this season, and like many of his fellow defensemen, Mata’afa was present, but not always visible. That’s now changed completely. The Cougar defense, led by the d-line, are playing uber-fast. The cracking of pads sound different, much different, than they did.
And right next to Mata’afa are some gap-pluggers who are playing as well as anyone. Specifically, I’m talking about Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale. These guys don’t get the glory, but their impact is just as great as Mata’afa’s. They’re tasked with disrupting blocking schemes and pushing offensive linemen around, and that tends to go unnoticed.  It shouldn’t.
Meanwhile, Dylan Hanser, plus Logan Tago, Garrett McBroom and others, are all contributing. Indeed, the Wazzu front 7 has found its identity, and that identity is bullying whoever lines up across from them.
Yes. It took the Cougs a full game against Eastern, three quarters against Boise State and the first 1 ½ quarters before they finally figured out that the season had in fact begun, but hey – who’s complaining?
Not me. The Cougs just crushed Stanford 42-16 and if it weren’t for a lapse, a poorly overthrown pass on third-and-forever, the scoreboard would have shown an even greater disparity.
Oh by the way, the Cougar offense is finding a rhythm of its own.  The final numbers are a little skewed, WSU like just about anyone else is going to run more with a commanding lead later in the game. Still, WSU attempted 41 passes and ran the ball 30 times. Call it what you want, but to me that’s a beautiful sight.
The credit there has to go to Luke Falk. The fourth-year junior looks like a completely different football player than the guy I watched in Weeks One and Two.
But as far as I’m concerned, and clearly this team subscribes to the same mindset, the past is history. Falk is on his game and shredding defenses with ease. His control and command of the offense is at a level most of us could only hope for, and with the addition of an effective run game, Falk has even more weapons at his disposal.
Which brings up my next point. In back-to-back games, Washington State has outrushed both Oregon and Stanford. Who would have ever thought?
That’s huge – and every team left on the schedule has to burn the midnight oil worrying about it.  A true-blue running game at Wazzu, or just the possibility of one, will demand every defensive coordinator’s full attention. And it makes Falk’s job that much easier.
When the Cougs can pick up five yards a pop on any given play, this offense instantly puts defenders on their heels. Another sweet advantage to having a successful run attack – play action.
I’m not sure if many have noticed, but WSU is calling more play action pass plays than in years past.
And while Mike Leach may still lean towards the pass when it comes to his 3x5 notecard of a playbook, the offense has evolved and adapted to the players in the system. Little tweaks here and there have really made all the difference. For example, the shovel pass that has been working so successfully. Jamal Morrow took it 45 yards on Saturday at Stanford, back when it was still a game. That’s a tone setter.
As simple of a play that it is, it’s more of a trick play in the eyes of Leach – and it works like one too.
Leach has to be happy with the way things have turned around. WSU is undefeated in Pac-12 play and more importantly, 2-0 against North teams. And they just happen to be the two teams many predicted before the season would battle for the North title.
The Cougs have found their rhythm (except in the kicking game). The challenge now is to stay consistent, and to correct or trash the things that are still problematic. With UCLA coming to Pullman next week, the Cougs have no time to celebrate. A pissed off Bruin team, after suffering a close road loss to Arizona State, is fully capable of stopping WSU’s momentum in its tracks – if the Cougs let it.
These Cougs are on a roll. And wouldn’t it be something if they keep it going and ride this thing out -- all the way to the big showdown on Nov. 25.  How do you like them apples?

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