Practice Report: Cougs walk the line

PULLMAN -- The sun was out across the Palouse on Wednesday, but the brightest forecast emanated from WSU's d-line. The unit, much improved from '05 and gaining momentum, was bolstered by last week's return of Fevaea'i Ahmu, following a stress fracture in his foot. His return, coupled with the development of several youngsters, has Mike Walker beaming, though he cautions USC poses an immense test.

"We are getting better every day," Walker said. "I've been waiting to get this depth."

The 6-1, 289-pound Ahmu, who started all 11 games last season as a true freshman in place of Ropati Pitoitua, was slated for the starting line up again after beating out two-year starter Aaron Johnson for the tackle spot opposite the now-healthy Pitoitua. But then he injured his foot -- the same foot that ruined much of his spring season -- just prior to the opener at Auburn. Ahmu's return has coincided with the emergence of sophomore Matt Eichelberger and JC transfer Bryan Tarkington as solid backup tackles, Walker said, giving him the rotation flexibility -- and fourth quarter fresh legs -- he envisioned when camp opened.

"We shut down the run last weekend (at Stanford), and we want to continue to play the run better," Walker said. The Cougars are giving up an average of 98 ground yards per game -- down from 153 per game in 2005.

At the ends, All-America candidate Mkristo Bruce has been outstanding, but the play of junior Lance Broadus -- thrust into the starting line up when senior Matt Mullennix suffered a season-ending knee injury -- has been a pleasant surprise, Walker said.

"They've stepped up big time," Walker said of Broadus and Bruce. "And Lance has been playing the run a lot better than we expected, you know he's not a big guy, and he's kind of turned himself into an Isaac Brown, where he can hold his own out there."

Brown was a 229-pound standout for the Cougars from 2001-03 who later spent a season on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad.

Broadus, who wears Brown's old No. 9, is listed at 6-2, 219 pounds -- a formidable size by most standards, but almost diminutive compared with the 6-7, 257 pound Mullennix and 6-7, 249-pound Bruce.

Despite the solid play of the d-line so far, Walker was quick Wednesday to point out that No. 2-ranked USC will offer the Cougars an entirely different level of challenge than they've had so far.

"We need to stop the run. They have three good backs -- actually four, a couple of them are freshman but they're all good -- and the offensive line is the best we are going to play all year," Walker said. "You know Auburn was good, but I think these guys are more athletic. We got to be disciplined."

On Tuesday, head coach Bill Doba said the Trojan offensive line "looks like a chorus line -- they all step on a zone play in the same step. They come up, they keep their shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, and they get down hill in a hurry."

  • Senior center Josh Duin, nursing an MCL sprain suffered at Stanford, didn't practice Wednesday. OL coach George Yarno had thought Tuesday there was a chance Duin might return Wednesday. Kenny Alfred is expected to get the start against USC.

  • Since 1999, WSU ranks No. 7 nationally in sacks and No. 9 in interceptions. Only one Pac-10 team has a better one-two punch in that time frame. USC ranks No. 1 in sacks and No. 2 in interceptions.

    The Cougar-Trojan game will be televised nationally at 4 p.m. by TBS. Calling the action will be Ron Thulin (play-by-play), Charles Davis (analyst) and Craig Sager (sideline).

  • Cougar senior receiver Jason Hill is just 118 yards away from tying legendary Hugh Campbell (1960-62) atop WSU's career receiving yardage list.

  • WSU's Pac-10 Player of the Week nominees following the Stanford game were Alex Brink (offense), Mkristo Bruce (defense) and Jason Hill (special teams). Brink completed 21 of 33 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns and scored on a one-yard run. Bruce set a WSU record and NCAA season-high, with five sacks, while Jason Hill blocked his second career punt that was recovered by Mike Graise, who also had an interception return for a touchdown. Bruce was selected the conference's defensive player of the week.

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