Practice Report: D, Pitoitua starting to roll

PULLMAN -- Wednesday's practice marked the mid-point of the regular season for the Cougs, and arguably the biggest surprise of the season has been the play of the defense. And defensive coordinator Robb Akey after practice seemed almost eager to try and continue that defensive resurgence against Cal on Saturday. One very big reason for the success has been the play of DT Ropati Pitoitua.

Washington State held OSU to under 300 total yards on offense, registered five sacks, three takeaways and held the Beavers to less than 65 yards rushing and to 20 percent success on third-down conversions.

"We had a real good performance last week, sometimes with the game on the line," Akey said. "We've seen good things all year, and now we want to continue to clean up and keep rolling."

One of the bigger stories of the year on defense, is quietly being authored by Ropati Pitoitua. Plagued by injuries each of his first two seasons, the junior has been rock solid this year -- and somewhat unsung. The 6-8, 291-pounder has consistently plugged the middle against the run and pushed the pocket on passing downs, helping to allow others the tackle and sack.

And consider these defensive tackle stats from 2005 -- A'i Ahmu led the position with 26 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack and one QB hurry. Aaron Johnson added another 19 tackles, 2 TFL, a sack and two hurries. Pitoitua at the halfway point has either already, or is on the cusp of, eclipsing all those marks.

In 2006, Pitoitua's stats through six games: 23 tackles (13 solo) with 4.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks along with three QB hurries.

DESPITE THE OFFENSIVE DOMINANCE the Bears have exhibited their last five games, topping the 40 point mark each game, Akey seemed to relish the challenge and opportunity that awaits on Saturday.

"This is going to be a great opportunity this weekend," Akey said. "They've got two real good running backs, three real good receivers - you know it's going to be an awesome football game."

Although the defense has more than held its own the past few weeks, a mini-myriad of questions still surround the unit, chiefly on the medical front. Key players nursing injuries including defensive tackle DT Aaron Johnson (lower back disc bulge), who joined safety Michael Willis (shoulder sprain) and cornerback Markus Dawes (high ankle sprain) on the list of players limited during the practice week.

AJ was also held out last week but played nearly the entire game at OSU, while Dawes and Willis sat out last week. Akey said the limited practice status of Johnson is more of a precautionary step than anything else, and that the irritation in his lower back is not expected to be a problem on Saturday.

Fellow DT Fevaea'i Ahmu continues to rehab a stress fracture in his foot, curtailing a planned rotation of Pitoitua, Ahmu, and Johnson up the middle for the Cougs'. It also pushes into the spotlight first year Cougar and junior Bryan Tarkington and sophomore Matt Eichelberger.

"They're at the point where we could put them in if it's necessary," Akey said. "It kind of depends on the scenario, but if Ropati or AJ are gassed, and we need to put one of them in, we're confident in that."

AKEY SAID HE expects Willis to play Saturday, and, like Johnson, he said the chief reason for their limited status is to prevent further injury.

"We're going to be smart with that shoulder, and not let it get banged up during practice," Akey said of Willis, who has sported a yellow-no contact jersey the last two practices. "He should be able to go Saturday, that's the expectation."

The outlook was slightly less optimistic for Dawes, however, as Akey said a return Saturday is the only hopeful at this point. The No. 3 cornerback has not played since injuring his ankle Auburn.

"I think we're making progress with that ankle, things are starting to look a little bit better, we're starting to get a little bit more work out of him," Akey said, "And hopefully, you know, his role will start to grow here, I hope this weekend, and if not this weekend then next."

Wide Receiver Jason Hill returned to practice Wednesday, although the senior donned a yellow jersey and did not participate in any contact drills. Hill suffered a AC sprain in his shoulder against OSU.

The Cougs ran Wednesday's practice in upper-body pads and helmets only, foregoing full pads and instead donning shorts and sweats. Doba last Wednesday also had the Cougs take off the pads in lieu of the normal full contact Wednesday session, saying giving the Cougs a chance to heal up and resting their legs at this point could pay benefits as the year goes along.

In one of the finer displays of athleticism the past few weeks, tight end and deep snapper Tony Thompson ended practice with a one-handed, full extension layout grab of an Alex Brink pass in the end-zone, drawing spirited praise from both the defensive and offensive units on the field. Jed Collins will start in place of injured tight end Cody Boyd.

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