COMMENTARY: Next step in Cougars’ climb hinges on defense

WE ARE FIVE SEASONS into the Mike Leach era and when it comes to the Air Raid offense, a central point has been made clear.

The Air Raid can and generally will put up massive points on average and poor teams.  But the numbers become more modest when the Cougs have faced outstanding defenses.

Conclusion: To take the next step, to reach a more elite level at Washington State, is going to require the Cougar defense to make the big strides.

Go back to the ‘90s.  Washington State had a juggernaut of an offense in 1992.  Two years later in 1994, WSU featured one hellacious defense. If fate would have paired those two units on the same team, you very well might have a national title in Pullman. Alas, they missed each other by two years. But the beauty of that ’94 team was that you could win games even with an offense that averaged a paltry 16.0 points per game.

Yes, college football has changed drastically since then through an explosion of scoring ... but this same principle endures: defense is the tipping point when it comes to reaching the elite level.

Scoring didn’t happen overnight for the Air Raid at Washington State, and the argument can be made it will take at least as much time for the defense to reach a lofty level.  After all, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has only been at WSU for two seasons.

But there are also reasons for optimism that the Cougar D in Year Three under Grinch could see big strides in '17. Here are three:

  • 9 starters return on defense
  • 18 of 22 of the two-deeps on D return
  • 7 homes games

From this chair, three key areas will greatly influence whether WSU takes that next step on defense:

  1. Takeaways. Grinch wants (at least) two takeaways per game. The Cougs averaged 1.77 in 2016 and 2.0 in 2015.  A banner year of averaging, say, 2.3 takeaways per game would do nicely. (Pictured above: Jalen Thompson).
  2. Force field goals. Washington State gave up 45 TDs and 10 field goals last year.  Tightening up that ratio and forcing more FG attempts is needed.
  3. Get off the field. In nine Pac-12 games, WSU allowed the opponent to convert 45.7 percent of its third-down tries (9th Pac-12).  Dropping that down to roughly 35 percent would likely place WSU in the top two. WSU had only 20 sacks last season, 16 in conference games. Applying more pressure, both in terms of hurries and sacks, is a must.

And if you take away the non-conference games (given the wide disparity of opponent) and look only at the conference games, WSU ranked No. 5 in scoring defense (27.1) last year.  Tops on the list was the team that won the Pac-12 South: Colorado, at  18.4 ppg.  In 2015, Colorado ranked No. 7 in scoring defense (32.3 ppg). 

So a massive improvement in scoring defense - and in the Pac-12 - can be done.  By the way, Colorado also returned nine defensive starters last year.

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