Rush battle: The workhorse vs. the stable
A huge tip of the cap to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and how he has his guys settled into the scheme. The movement before the snap, after the snap, and the energy after the play -- it's all been flowing like a raging river. Against McCaffrey and Stanford, the Cougar D's domination against the run was accomplished by gap sound defense. For example:
On Stanford's second drive, the Card runs power left. Luani comes down and sets the edge, defining the read for McCaffrey. Then, Tago gets penetration on the guard and muddies the read even more. All this sets up Taylor for a one on one with McCaffrey.
In the open field the Heisman hopeful has an advantage, but in the phone booth the defense has created, Taylor comes downhill and gets the tackle for loss.
Driving home the advantage: WSU's stable of three horses meanwhile averaged 4-plus yards per carry (25 carries, 101 yards, 4.2 ypc). The two rushing TDs continued the dynamic shift of everything we thought this Air Raid offense was about.
Not long ago, having the ball and a lead was shaky ground because WSU didn't run in those situations. But even before the halfway point of 2016, I would hazard a guess Cougar fans feel very confident in handing it off and getting first downs -- as WSU did twice to start the fourth quarter at Stanford. WSU can now eat up the clock when it wants, and can control the game.
Appreciate the trenches:
Defensive tackle is somewhat like playing on the O-Line, you do a lot of the dirty work and rarely end up in the newspaper. How many tackles the DTs are credited with is a terrible way to value their impact. And so I must point out tackle Daniel Ekuale and nose tackle Robert Barber and their impact on WSU's win over the No. 15 team in the land.
The job responsibility on many plays for these Bad Mamba Jambas is to eat up offensive linemen -- meaning they are supposed to make two players block them. This allows the linebackers to scrape over the piles and fill holes. And exactly that was seen, all day, vs. the Cardinal, with Cougar safeties and linebackers so often coming untouched in forming up on the ball carrier.
When the Stanford offensive line did try and block man to man, you saw gray helmets and white jerseys showing up in the backfield. As a runner, you are supposed to make the first guy miss. But when the first one is coming into your vision one step after receiving the ball, it throws off all rhythm or reads.
There are also the selfless stunts the Cougar DTs run, with Ekuale regularly picking off both guard and tackle for a QB’s nightmare - Cougar d-end Hercules Mata'afa coming free. That was just such a case when Mata'afa got the perfect lane to put the Stanford QB on his back to set up Isaac Dotson’s interception. Everyone will remember Dotson's remarkable athleticism on the pick. But don't forget that it all started with the perfect execution and selfless act by Ekuale. From the heart of the defense, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the WSU d-tackles.
Atta Boy! for Peyton Pelluer and Isaac Dotson
Late in the first half, Pelluer blankets the running back he's assigned to in man to man coverage. When the RB goes to block another defender, Pelluer then has the “green dog” capability of being free to go after the ball. With a clear path to the Cardinal QB, Pelluer flashes in for the strip sack, and another Cougar takeaway.
Dotson showed uncanny field awareness on Saturday that we hadn’t seen in weeks prior, coming away with two takeaways -- the fumble recovery on Pelluer's sack and the aforementioned highlight reel pick put in motion by Ekuale and Mata'afa. Yes, there is such thing as being in the right place at the right time but when you repeat it, it becomes a skill.
A bird, a plane, it's a Luani!
When it was still a game, Stanford lined up in their jumbo set needing a yard. Eight yards deep on defense, No. 18 waits. Everyone is in a scrum position and at the snap of the ball, Luani shows no hesitation in attacking but the beauty here was his ability to read on the fly -- and I do mean fly.
Because as Luani gets to the heels of his defensive line (which hasn't given an inch) he takes off! Meeting McCaffrey in mid-air and deliver the blow, one of the most unsung safeties in the nation saw his opponent awarded the victory after, from my chair, a questionable spot. But the message it sent to Luani's teammates and opposition alike was important: With Luani on the field, you must earn every inch.
Infamy in the making:
It was nice to see another special teams unit struggle getting the ball through the uprights, but it did not overshadow the fact it happened to Wazzu ... again. I hesitate addressing it but when you see the stat that WSU is the only FBS team without a made field goal this season, five games in, it's hard not to shout it form the mountain tops until it is fixed. Until WSU can prove otherwise, the Cougs are simply a fourth-and-no-question team. It means WSU will need to depend on guys like Tavares Martin to turn lemons into lemonade, which he did with his magnificent catch and TD run on fourth-and-seven.
The Cougs also endured a blocked punt. Fans won't be talking as much about that this week -- those kinds of things are under-discussed in a win, over-discussed in a loss. But I have sat in enough meeting rooms to know that this clip is going to be blasted every week here on out in the opponent's game prep. Coaches see weakness as blood in the water, and right now WSU's special teams is looking like chum.
A River Runs through Palo Alto: Player of the Game
It seems every week a new star emerges at wideout, speaking to the sheer depth of the 2016 receiver corps. This week the spotlight was on River Cracraft. Watching Cracraft take off on a vertical after beating his man downfield, snaring the football three feet over his head was a delight -- and I'd say he made this catch more on intuition than vision. Then he had a corner route on cover 3 and bent it enough to beat the corner for a third-and-10 conversion. And of course there was the ridiculous TD catch.
But why Cracraft gets my game ball this week is found on another play in the third quarter. WSU leading 14-3 at the half on the road at No. 15 is great, but if Wazzu comes out flat in the second half that lead is easily overcome. On the first drive, Cracraft had 30- and 12-yard receptions for back-to-back first downs. Then in the red zone, on fourth down, Cracraft ran his patented quick. Move the chains. Big plays and timely messages earns him the nod this week. I also can’t help but marvel at how deep Mike Leach’s WR arsenal continues to grow.
Stat of the Game:
Third quarter plays: WSU 30, Stanford 9
And THAT is how you finish.
What excites me most about WSU's performance down on The Farm is the sequence that sealed the victory. Fourth quarter: Luani sits back on a flat route and reads the quarterback's eyes for an interception, as the Cougar defense just continues to take the ball away. Then, WSU plays smash mouth football and pounds its way down to the goal line with run after successful run. And how do the Cougs finish it? With Gerard Wicks one on one in the hole with a Stanford linebacker, with Wicks and Co. delivering the knockout punch at 42-10.
This sequence defines the new Cougs.
It is what I hope to see this Saturday back home vs. the Bruins.
It is why I believe WSU can go 1-0 this week.
It is why I can confidently say, ‘A Team Grows in in Pullman!'
Out in Eastern Washington there is a new breeze blowing through the Palouse. Cougar fans are flying their flags a little higher this week. It's not too early to start to dream of what’s to come … For us. Cougar Nation. Not the players. You guys are 0-0 this week. As you were. Collins over and out).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.