But first let me pre-warn you, so you’re ready for when it happens on Friday. UW is going to throw Ross the football a lot. He is going to make Cougar defenders miss. And he is going to make plays. Repeat all that to yourself, and know that going in.
But also know this: there are most assuredly ways WSU can decidedly limit his impact. As a former Cougar defensive back, and if you’ll allow me to put my defensive coordinator’s hat on, these are the four keys I would focus on in game planning this week when it comes to Ross.
1. Apply pressure.
The easiest way to keep the ball out of Ross’s hands is to simply take QB Jake Browning down before he ever gets the chance. Sacks can be drive killers and momentum shifters, they can turn games around in a heartbeat. They also have a cumulative effect: the more you hit a QB, the happier the feet become and the sooner the eyes come down. Granted, it won’t happen on every pass attempt but any pressure is a positive, and a handful or more of WSU sacks will go a long way in this game.
2. Blitz less.
I know I just said apply pressure, but WSU has to do it without bringing extra guys again and again. The Cougars need every defender they can in pass coverage and at the same time, be effective against the run. The Cougs have no choice form my chair but to play straight up, hard nose football. The defensive line needs to win the one-on-one battles so that defensive coordinator and DBs coach Alex Grinch isn’t forced to take more defenders out of Ross’ frame.
3. Put multiple defenders on Ross' side.
If that means double cover him, then do it. WSU cannot afford to defend Ross one-on-one. Even the Cougs' best corner, Darrien Molton in my view, is going to have a tough time if he doesn’t get any help either inside, outside, underneath, over the top, whatever it may be. Wazzu needs to have more than one defender near Ross and at all times.
4. Speed and violence to the football.
UW likes to give Ross the ball short so he can do his thing and extend plays after the catch. In the screen game, as well as any underneath throws, Coug defenders need to react quicker than they have recently, and probably all season. Linebackers and defensive backs need to be violent against blocks and make sure that they win the leverage battle. When d-linemen read the short pass game, they need to put their foot in the ground and turn and run as fast as they possibly can towards the ball carrier. One slip up and Ross can take it to the house.
Cougar players critical to the task (hint: everyone)
1. The entire secondary.
That means Molton, Marcellus Pippins, Treshon Broughton, Robert Taylor, Jalen Thompson, Charleston White -- and it means Kirkland Parker, Hunter Dale and Marcus Strong if/when their numbers are called. Covering Ross needs to be the No. 1 focus on these players' minds every day this week. If this group can limit Ross, that leaves UW without one very big option on offense and increases the chances of a Cougar victory by a not insignificant amount.
2. Shalom Luani.
I didn't mention him above because Luani merits a line item all his own. Luani will be a huge factor in stopping Ross this week. He is, in my view, the one player who has to be near Ross at all times. If that means lining him up at WIL when Ross is on the near side of the field, so be it. Colorado did an excellent job of keeping its game away from Luani. The Cougs cannot allow the Huskies to do the same. Luani needs to be in the picture whenever Ross has the football in his hands.
3. The entire defensive line.
WSU needs to sack the quarterback this week and it doesn’t matter who does it. And if they can't sack him, they have to hit him as he throws. Just like with the secondary, anyone who sees the field on Friday needs to make it their No. 1 priority to put hats on Browning and put him on his wallet. Specifically, I’m talking about Hercules Mata’afa, Daniel Ekuale, Garrett McBroom, Nnamdi Oguayo, Robert Barber, Derek Moore, Ngalu Tapa, Frankie Luvu and Dylan Hanser. Someone has to do it, it doesn't matter who, but someone must do it.
And let's not forget about the glue of the Cougar defense: the inside linebackers and WSU's do-it-all type of defenders. They steer the ship and make the calls. And Peyton Pelluer, Isaac Dotson, Paris Taylor, and now Parker Henry as well as Nate DeRider, will collectively need to ensure this defense is lined up and ready to go before every single snap. Without them, nothing that the Cougs have accomplished on defense this year would ever have been possible. But all of that is now in the past. This needs to be the best, crispest game of their WSU careers to date.
AGAIN, THERE IS no magic button to defending Ross. In case you missed it, look at what he did to USC's Adoree Jackson, a future first round draft pick, two games ago.
Yes, “it happens." But Wazzu can have the game plan, and execute it, so that it doesn’t for three-plus hours on Friday.
And yes, stopping Ross is only one piece to the puzzle if the Cougs want to pull off the upset. With a short week to prepare, there is no time to waste. This year's Apple Cup game means everything for both WSU and UW. Not since 1981 have the two teams met with a title on the line for both.
It’s all or nothing, do or die, and winner takes all.
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