That's a pretty stunning number -- even taking into account the figure was bolstered by a favorable non-conference slate -- and when you consider the carnage everywhere else. Ninth in yards allowed. Ninth in points given up. Ninth in pass defense. Ninth in turnovers gained. Tenth in first downs surrendered. Seventh in rush defense.
Clearly there's a big hill to climb, but there are worse places to start the ascent than from a base of experienced, sack-savvy players. Here's the complete defensive rundown on 2006:
Notable losses: DE Adam Braidwood, CB Omowale Dada, LB Will Derting, DT Bryan Olson, CB Alex Teems.
Top returnees: FS Husain Abdullah, DT Fevaea'i Ahmu, DE Mkristo Bruce, CB Lorenzo Bursey, LB Scott Davis, LB Steve Dildine, SS Eric Frampton, DT Aaron Johnson, FS DeWayne Patterson, DT Ropati Pitoitua. LB Greg Trent, CB Don Turner.
Up-and-comers: LB Chris Baltzer, S Christian Bass, CB Ian Bell, DE Reyshawn Bobo, CB Tyron Brackenridge, DE Lance Broadus, LB Cory Evans, DE Mike Graise, CB Ryan Kensok, DE Matt Mullennix, LB Jason Stripling, CB Courtney Williams, S Michael Willis.
WSU was supposed to have one of the elite linebacking groups in the Pac-10 in 2005, but Will Derting's knee injury put a dent in those plans, Still, the Cougar LB corps performed somewhere between serviceable and solid. True freshman Greg Trent replaced Derting in the middle after the injury, flanked by seniors-to-be Scott Davis and Steve Dildine. The group will return intact next year, with Trent (presumably) making the improvements that only experience can bring. Backing them up will be sophomores-to-be Cory Evans and Jason Stripling on the outside and senior Chris Baltzer in the middle. Davis, a two-time all-Pac-10 honorable mention choice, is a gamer who will be expected to make some serious hay.
Shoring up: The Cougar secondary ranged from OK to positively dreadful in 2005. Half of this year's starters --- cornerbacks Alex Teems and Omowale Dada --- graduate, so the question-marks here will continue to abound. Talented yet injury-prone Don Turner is the best bet to start on one side. He has all the tools to be an elite corner, but hasn't been able to put the whole package together. Senior Tyron Brackenridge, an academic redshirt in 2005, will start on the other side. Brackenridge played well as a backup corner and starting kick returner in 2004. In practices this season he regularly shut down WSU's starting receivers.
Pushing Turner and Brackenridge is a group of upstarts led by sophomore-to-be Courtney Williams, a high school linebacker, and, if he isn't moved back to receiver, Lorenzo Bursey, a high school and JC running back who tried his hand at corner this year after initially being ticketed for slotback. Both are still learning how to play corner. Also in the mix is third-year walk-on Ryan Kensok; athletic but injury-prone Ian Bell; and
Keys to the season: The usually-vaunted Cougars D was ripped apart this past season, allowing averages of more than 31 points and 442 yards per game. The heart of the unit is gone in Derting, (and to some extent, Braidwood) but many talented players return. Whereas past Cougars defenses played an attacking style, this year's group seemed to be in reaction mode, and it hurt them against the Pac-10's high-powered offenses. For 2006 to be a success, Bruce needs at least one effective pass-rushing partner, and the secondary has to limit the big plays.
Notable losses: P Kyle Basler, K Graham Siderius.
Top returnees: K Loren Langley, PR Michael Bumpus, KR Brandon Gibson, KR Lorenzo Bursey.
Up-and-comers: P Darryl Blunt, P Fritz Brayton, KR Benny Ward.
Look for: Basler had an outstanding, though inconsistent career, and his departure opens the door for either Fritz Brayton --- grandson of WSU baseball legend Bobo Brayton --- or Darryl Blunt, a transfer from Portland State. In practices, neither one looked especially impressive, but Blunt had some moments and also has college experience so may have the upper hand going into spring ball. Loren Langley was one of the most accurate kickers in the Pac-10 early in ‘05, but in the latter portion of the year was plagued by missed kicks, most notably three badly missed treys against Washington. Some viewers may not have noticed, but Doba benched Langley after the third miss, as kickoff specialist Graham Siderius took the final extra point attempt. But with Siderius gone, Langley is the only kicker left on the roster. The junior-to-be is battle-tested (he also was the starter as a true freshman) and is accurate on the shorter kicks.
As a punt returner, Michael Bumpus is among the conference's most exciting players. And with an entire offseason to recover from the high ankle sprain that ruined the last half of his 2005, look for big things in 2006. The Cougars' kick returners didn't make any all-star teams, but weren't bad either. Brandon Gibson and Lorenzo Bursey were the primary starters, but DeMaundray Woolridge and Benny Ward also saw some opportunities. Gibson has the tools to be a great return man and should get better. Bursey also showed a knack for finding and exploiting creases in kick coverage.
The Cougars have 12 regular-season games next year, starting with a tough road contest against mighty Auburn. That will be followed by non-conference games against Idaho (at home) and resurgent Baylor (in Seattle). A 3-0 start would get the pundits chattering, but 2-1 is realistic and 1-2 certainly possible. From there, it's on the road to Stanford, home vs. USC and on the road to Oregon State. As Pac-10 beginnings go, the Trojans are what they are, but the other two games are a relatively nice way to dive into the first three weeks. If the Cougs come through that stretch in decent shape, things look good because they follow up with Cal and Oregon in Pullman on consecutive weekends. The final four are UCLA on the road, Arizona in Pullman, ASU on the road, and Washington in Pullman.