Let's talk about that defense. The first nine quarters of the season it appeared Wazzu had a “catch and bring down” type of defense. That narrative has changed completely over the last 15 quarters, to a “We are coming, and we are bringing the hammer with us.” The new energy is seen every time an opposing ball carrier is stood up by the first Cougar defender and then, as the pursuit comes, every Wazzu player is laying out. The crimson faithful saw plenty of that in the Cougars' 27-21 victory Saturday over UCLA.
Sure, some pursuit players will inevitably bang into guys with the same jersey and result in some friendly fire, but the punishment is a mission statement to anyone holding the rock. If the Coug D is willing to hit its own with that intensity, what are they willing to do to the opposition?
I watched two Cougars collide in midair going for an interception. I saw the UCLA QB being chased sideline-to-sideline by 300-pound WSU nose tackles. I observed Bruin running backs kept in check with 29 yards on 20 carries. And I couldn’t stop smiling.
The defensive side of the ball has settled into a rhythm and a swagger at Washington State. No longer is there any pre-snap confusion – instead you see several Cougar defenders recognizing formations and calling out the opposition playbook.
Am I the only one who thought WSU was in complete control when WSU went up by 10 points in the first half? The final outcome ended up closer than Cougar Nation would have liked but to have that confident feeling tells you something: this Cougar defense has found a new gear, and its character.
“Prove it” Play
On a rainswept and windy night that affected both offenses, the Bruins pulled within three points in the second half. Washington State needed momentum -- and needed to regain control of the game at this stage of the proceedings. It began with a great, decisive kickoff return by Robert Taylor for 36 yards.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Falk lays a corner route over River Cracraft’s head that everyone in the stadium -- but one -- thought was overthrown. Cracraft leaps and extends just enough to get his fingertips on the ball and somehow that is all he needs, pulling in a 21-yarder and moving the chains. Magnificent.
Next, Tavares Martin does a take-off up the sideline. As the ball approaches, Martin measures but doesn’t reach out for the ball until the last moment. That delay freezes the defender just enough to make the 24-yard catch
Cougar running back Gerard Wicks (pictured above) and the Wazzu offensive line though, had the ultimate “prove it” play.
Replay took away Wicks’ TD run, so Mike Leach called for a re-do. In practice, this play what's called a “prove it” play, where both sides of the ball knows what’s coming.
The intent is to see who is holding a pop gun, and who is holding the machine gun.
Wicks took the handoff again and walked into the end zone.
A prove-it play, where a running back is able to walk the hardest yard in football, means only one thing. Everyone up front won his battle.
Play of the Game, courtesy of linebacker Dylan Hanser:
UCLA scored twice and had the ball back with a chance to take the lead. A completed pass to Bruin Jordan Lasley was enough for the first down and Lasley was looking for more. But that’s when Hanser tracked down Lasley from behind and attacks the ball -- while wrapping up the tackle.
The technique to rip at the ball and take it away is starting to truly become a staple in Alex Grinch’s defense. Against UCLA, it was a difference maker. And Hanser forced two of ‘em.
Player of the Game/ Stat of the Game: Erik Powell
Leach has been going for it on fourth down even more than usual this year due to the Cougs’ inability to kick a field goal. But fourth-and-15 from the Bruin 29-yard line was outside even Leach’s comfort zone.
The rain and the wind were not in Powell's favor, but his first made field goal of the season gave Washington State a lead they would never relinquish.
The game ball goes to Powell for his resilience and focus. Many players let failure beat them, but it is a thing of beauty when you can look failure in the eyes and defeat it.
Powell going 2-of-2 on Saturday night was the difference in a 27-21 game, and the point differential in the win. It’s also what I hope is the beginning of a new streak by the Cougars’ field goal unit.
Coug of the Game: Robert Barber
All night long, the Cougars’ starting nose tackle disrupted and penetrated the Bruin offensive line. But nose tackles don’t get the stat-book glory, and Barber officially posted only one tackle. I could talk about what Barber did to enable other Cougs to make plays but instead, what makes him this week’s Coug of the Game has nothing to do with defense.
When Powell booted his first successful field goal of the year, Barber was on the field to celebrate with him. Why? Barber lines up as part of the field-goal unit -- a group that has struggled for the Cougs season. But against UCLA it gave WSU the lead in the first quarter. The message from a senior defensive star, to pick up a teammate who has been struggling, speaks to the leadership and unity on the 2016 Cougs. The importance cannot be discounted. These moments make football, and a football team, great.
Fourth quarter: A Cougar TEAM on display
The final 15 minutes on Saturday was the epitome of how much the 2016 Cougars have grown. UCLA scored on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter. But what almost always feels like a huge momentum swing instead felt to me like the Bruins were slowly bleeding out. And that was due to the Cougs’ four-minute offense.
Unlike a two-minute offense, when a team is down by a score and in hurry-up mode, a four-minute offense is when you're up a score late in the game and need to make the clock an ally, not an enemy.
When the Cougs got the ball back with 11:37 left in the game, leading by 10 points, it was time to eat the clock. Despite the Bruin D’s best attempts (and one peculiar pass break up by the official), Washington State crafted a 15-play drive that devoured 6:30 off the clock.
No, the game was not decided after this drive. Indeed, UCLA followed it with another score. Plus, WSU ended the game on offense with consecutive three-and-outs. But that lengthy drive blunted any decisive UCLA momentum. And it set up the Cougar D to end the game with two takeaways. Striking a balance between the offense and defense, and having the grit to hold onto victories when the opposition makes plays, is huge.
I am not going to make declarations on where I think this season will end up. I will, however, pose a question that will reflect my confidence in a team that is growing stronger each week.
If the Cougars play like they have during this four-game winning streak, with three of those victories coming against Oregon, Stanford and UCLA, can you name a team left on the schedule Wazzu can’t beat?
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.
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