WSU evolving into Pac-12 force after UCLA win

PULLMAN – Washington State faithful have seen it all. For more than a decade, Coug fans have endured some of the worst losses and most heartbreaking seasons that you could ever imagine. But the times are changing and now the opportunity for Wazzu to make their claim in the Pac-12 North has surfaced in the most unimaginable way possible.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Cougs got it done on Saturday night as they topped UCLA 27-21 for their fourth consecutive win and remain unbeaten in Pac-12 play this season.

The Bruins offense scratched and fought all night searching for signs of success, but never quite put anything together until the end – thanks to another dominating performance by the Cougar defense.

On a blustery night at Martin Stadium, the front seven played a major role in attacking the Bruins in the trenches. They out-competed UCLA from start to end and continued a trend this season by holding the Bruins to just 43-net rushing yards on the night.

A key player that stepped up his game and played a huge role on the front seven was junior RUSH linebacker Dylan Hanser. With the recent suspension of Logan Tago, another RUSH linebacker that has been splitting time with Hanser from the first game of the season, saw a big increase in reps this week.

Hanser not only held up his end, but he was out there making big plays. He forced two crucial fumbles that really changed the momentum of the game. His second created the turnover that was easily the play of the game. Hanser knocked the ball loose during the Bruins last ditch attempt at making a fourth quarter comeback.

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Another key contributor on defense was Shalom Luani. It may be too soon to make any assumptions, but with the way that Luani has played over the past five games, I think it is safe to say that he should easily be considered a first team all-conference player. Luani is a scary man in that nickel spot. He played hard against run, covered extremely well against the pass, almost intercepted a throw, and consistency made plays in the backfield.

I think every Coug fan should be grateful to have a guy like Luani out there this year because pretty soon, we’re going to be watching this kid play on Sunday’s. Looking ahead to next season I'm already wishing we could have him back rocking the crimson and gray on Saturdays.

Turning to the secondary, I think this was probably their best game yet. Two interceptions are always a great thing, but their coverage against UCLA was phenomenal for most of the game. Even after completed passes, the Cougs had defenders and defensive back’s all over the ball carrier.

The Bruins have some really highly rated guys on offense, so of course they’re going to make their plays. But If it weren’t for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and this stifling Cougar defense, the scoreboard might have reflected an ugly picture for Wazzu at the end of the game.

The offense didn’t play their best game, but after it was all said and done, they did what they needed to do to get the job done.

The rain was definitely a factor that challenged the offense to sustain any consistency for most of the night as Luke Falk made one poor throw after the other – even fumbling the ball after pulling his arm back to make a throw.

In the first half, Falk went 17 for 29 passing for 139-yards with no scores and one interception. And he didn’t look much better in the second half as he finished the night completing only 58-percent of his pass attempts. Even with a low-stat night by Falk standards, the offense still managed to get the Cougs down the field to put points on the board when they needed them.

One thing that I did like a lot about Falk’s performance against UCLA was with his pocket awareness. He did take a few sacks that he likely could have avoided, but I thought that he got outside of the pocket and threw the ball out of bounds when he needed to.

On to the offensive line. These guys didn’t have a huge night either, but after watching the Bruins stack the box and give them handfuls of disguises and different looks to sort out, I thought that they played extremely well in that sense. They picked up blitzes much better than I expected them to, and gave Falk a lot of time on some plays that had more than five defenders bringing pressure. On top of that, 95 rushing yards isn’t terrible at all considering that UCLA had so many defenders crowding the line of scrimmage.

So here we are, 4-2, 3-0 in Pac-12 play, on the season and undefeated in conference play. There’s still a long road ahead, but from the way I see things the Cougs could be in for another historic season.

After knocking off the likes of Oregon, Stanford, and now UCLA, the Cougs are now the team to beat in the north (Yeah, yeah, yeah the Huskies… we will deal with them later when the time comes). But to be honest, I don’t think these Cougs or WSU fans mind the pressure at all. In fact, it’s not a bad problem to have considering that WSU hadn’t had a winning season for over ten years until 2015.

Everyone talks about the Air-Raid, Luke Falk, and Gabe Marks, but the defense is the unit that is really starting to become the heart and soul of this team.

WSU has their mojo back – they have their swagger back, and now is their time to take hold of the reins and continue to punish every team that is in their way of from here on out.

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