Why Cougs should remember 2016 Holiday Bowl, and why a year from now it might take on a completely different meaning

SAN DIEGO – The conventional wisdom before the Holiday Bowl was that Washington State would have little difficulty putting up plenty of points against Minnesota. The concern instead, from close watchers of the program, was if WSU’s defense could stop Minnesota’s ground attack and play-action trickery. So much for conventional wisdom. But here’s why one year from now the 2016 Holiday Bowl might take on a completely different meaning for Wazzu.

Cougar defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and the defensive staff -- linebackers coach Ken Wilson, outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, d-line coach Joe Salave'a, put together an outstanding game plan. And the Cougar players executed it with aplomb. If it wasn’t for such an abysmal offensive performance, I think Cougar fans today are not only celebrating a win, but a blowout win. Instead, it’s a painful loss.

But Grinch needs to bottle this one – each and every aspect of the month-long game prep – and especially in light of a Cougar D the last two regular season games that more resembled human turnstiles.

With Minnesota's heavy power running attack, fullback motions, speed on the outside and play-action pass packages, I thought for sure that WSU would struggle against that scheme. But I was wrong. The Cougar D was on top of it. They were well prepared and when you see the defensive flow like you did on Tuesday, that’s a pretty good sign of a team coached up and in full knowledge of what’s coming.

The WSU defensive line was the clear winner in the trenches vs. Minnesota, the linebackers stuck to their assigned man and coverage responsibilities on play-action, and the coverage was well above average on the back end (there were a few plays where an on-target Gopher pass would have spelled trouble). But for the vast majority of the game, the defensive backs were a step near or on top of their man. Bottom line: they didn’t give up the big explosive plays.

Sitting in the press box, I also thought WSU defensive front held the clear advantage when it came to strength, speed and technique. Across the line, starters Hercules Mata’afa, Robert Barber, Daniel Ekuale and Frankie Luvu/Dylan Hanser, and rotational members Garrett McBroom, Ngalu Tapa, Nnamdi Oguayo and Derek Moore, played outstanding fundamental football. They not only took on blocks, they put the Gopher blockers in reverse.

If there’s anything to take comfort in after such a devastating loss, it’s that all but one of those Coug defenders (Barber) return next season -- plus all the defensive coaches, barring something unexpected. 

Grinch’s name came up a little this November-December, when the coaching carousel rumor mill cranks up full swing. I’ve heard some Cougars say a WSU win over Colorado and/or UW might well have paved the way for a Grinch exit. This isn’t based on anything other intuition but I don’t think Grinch is ready to leave WSU.

Yes, he has proven he can raise a defense that was skulking around the depths, but he still needs to find that elusive thing known as consistency (see Eastern, Colorado, Washington this season).  I also think he sees a ton of 2017 potential in a young Cougar D.

Imagine if the Holiday Bowl was the harbinger, that hindsight next year at this time will reveal how the Cougar D was ready to take it to the next level in 2017 -- and play consistent, shut down defense over a 12-game regular season. And if that’s still a little too ambitious, then an improved crimson stop corps next season that’s more highly competitive in the Pac-12 certainly is not. 

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