“If it stands...”
These are not words any defense wants to rely on, but on the first play of the Washington State-Arizona game on Saturday the Cougars were very fortunate to have a big play by Arizona called back. This shock to the system kickstarted a WSU defense that from that point on was firing on all cylinders and contributed mightily to the 69-7 rout.
There had been some question as to which Arizona offense would show up on Saturday with all their injuries, including at quarterback. This type of uncertainty actually can be an advantage for an offense. How the Cougar defense prepared for the unknown was revealed on the next three plays. They zeroed in on fundamentals.
First-and-15: Wildcat QB Brandon Dawkins pitches out to Samajie Grant for an outside sweep. With Cougar nickel Parker Henry sidelined and safety Shalom Luani moving into his spot, the play runs toward Luani covering the slot receiver. Luani attacks the receiver and takes the blocker exactly where he wants him, containing his perimeter responsibility. This leverage turns Grant back into the heart of the Cougar pursuit and freshman Jalen Thompson comes down to make the open-field tackle.
Second-and-nine: Washington State backs up in a cover 3, anticipating a mid-level throw and defending with three linebackers and a safety. The protection is sound but the containment on Dawkins breaks down and he scrambles out of the pocket. Linebacker Frankie Luvu stays disciplined and when his flat zone is threatened, he flies down to get a hit on Dawkins for a minimal gain and force third down.
Third-and-seven: The Cougs only rush three and leave end Hercules Mata’afa in a spy position to mirror Dawkins. Pressure comes to the face of Dawkins and he is forced into a quick throw. Linebacker Isaac Dotson has Arizona's running back in man-to-man coverage and is stride-for-stride with him. Dotson comes up with a big tackle for loss to force the three-and-out.
It was a great recovery by the Cougar defense to not only bounce back after the first-play mishap that, fortunately for them, was wiped out by the Arizona penalty. But the subsequent three plays set the tone for the game.
'Atta Boy: Alijah Lee and Nnamdi Oguayo
Cougar running back Jamal Morrow had three very productive punt returns against the Wildcats, but one almost proved to be a fatal mistake. After returning the ball for 30 yards he fumbled down in the Wildcat red zone. In moments like this players can show their identity.
Alijah Lee, a walk on who plays exclusively on special teams, recovered the ball for the Cougars. Here's what's special about his heroics. When the play started, he rushed the punter, then turned around to get downfield to help with return blocking. In all, he covered about 80 yards. The guy was hustling every moment he was on the field, going one direction and then another. When Morrow's fumble ball bounced toward Lee instead of the Wildcats, it proved that good things happen to those who hustle. Back when the game was still 0-0, this type of momentum play cannot be understated.
Cougar second-year freshman rush end Nnamdi Oguayo burst onto the scene this week with not one, not two, but three sacks of Arizona quarterbacks. One came on a fourth down -- stopping the first productive drive the Wildcats had after switching QBs from Dawkins to Anu Solomon. That takedown showed the importance of getting home and how that will, I believe, be a huge factor down the road as WSU's star sack-master Hercules Mata'afa, attracts more double teams.
Play of the Game: Luani's anticipation
A play after applying pressure from a nickel blitz off the slot, Luani lined up over the same slot receiver. This time, he allowed the receiver to release -- but as the Wildcat broke out, Luani changed the game.
Knowing he had safety help over the top, Luani did what few player can and instead of playing the man he played the ball. In a split moment, he recognized the play, anticipated the throw and undercut the route for his fourth interception on the year.
Now, one must refrain from commenting on the fact he was tackled by Dawkins -- the quarterback. That's a mortal sin in the defensive film room! Luani's outrage at the indignity was seen on the next drive with a sack. Bottom line, Luani provided plenty of highlights in this game.
Unsung Hero: Isaac Dotson
Dotson has continued to show up and produce in every game, seemingly always on top of the Cougar tackle board. Here's one example.
The Wildcats are in a scoring position for the first time Saturday afternoon when Solomon avoids the pressure from the D-line stunt and scrambles out of the pocket with Dotson on his heels. To secure the tackle would force a third down and potential drive stop, but this is when the technique-focused mentality of WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch shines.
Dotson chases Solomon down from behind and rips down at the ball, knocking it free and creating a WSU takeaway.
The difference between one team suffering turnovers and the other enjoying takeaways is felt when the play could have resulted in a secured tackle but instead the instinct is to relentlessly attack the ball.
Stat of the Game: 14 Washington State players caught a pass. Fourteen! At one point I think someone studying in Holland Library came away with a catch.
Player of the Game: Quarterback Luke Falk
It is safe to say you're in the zone when you can walk off a field having thrown more touchdowns (4) than incomplete passes (3).
Falk orchestrated the game beautifully from the first drive right up to the point he passed the torch to backup Tyler Hilinski in the third quarter. But what set Falk apart on Saturday was the diversity in throws.
The always-dependable 5-yard crossing routes and the pick-your-poison-spacing-routes were utilized nicely, but a flurry of different throws was impressive and kept the Wildcats mystified. A few of them:
- A 2-yard fade route thrown up to Gabe Marks that was put in a spot where Marks could attack the ball at its highest point and come down in bounds.
- Controlling the defense with a pump fake, Falk pulled the safeties down and allowed Morrow to head up the sideline for a 50 harder.
- A seam route up the hash where Marks was surrounded by four Arizona defenders, but Falk found the sweet spot.
- Morrow steps up to pick up the blitz, Falk hangs in on a third-and-long, and waited for the window on Tavares Martin Jr.’s 15-yard dig to open up ... first down.
- In the red zone, Falk hits a 3-yard slant and then a back of the end-zone baseline drag.
Falk will give credit to his big fellas up front for keeping him clean all day -- and he should. But credit must also be given to the play caller as well, for keeping a balanced attack humming and getting the ball out of his hands crisply and efficiently.
The Cougars are rolling, their stars are shining and the energy in the Palouse is growing. Not much has to be changed from this one. If Washington State can repeat the intensity and focus it came out with against Arizona, the ball will continue to bounce in the Cougs' favor.
Can the Washington State Cougars be for real? Seven straight says so.
Can they capitalize on games they are supposed to win? See 69-7, WSU vs. Arizona, Nov. 5.
Can they play four quarters of solid football? All 60 minutes were played in this one.
Can they begin to look at championships or bowl games? NOT YET.
Enjoy the moment, that's why you play. But now the Cougs need to give the Berkeley Bears complete focus and try to repeat this performance next weekend.
Football is most beautiful when simplified: Keep doing what you're doing, Cougars.
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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