CRIMSON COMMENTARY: A return to defense

WELCOME BACK, old friend. You've been missed and for far too long, since 2003 really. And yet there you were on Saturday in the Cougars' season opener, put in any number of difficult positions both early and often, and performing admirably. Mark this game, Cougar fans. It was the beginning of a return.


A return to defense.

It was a 26-point loss and that's hard to stomach. There remains lots of work to be done and plenty of mistakes were made on both sides of the ball. The bottom line is, and always will be, about winning. And Washington State lost on Saturday.

But that final score doesn't tell the complete story. I like touchdown catches, big blocks and gamebreaking runs as much as the next guy. But I love defense. And until the Washington State defense wore out in the fourth quarter, as a defense is bound to do when an offense can't sustain drives, Saturday was both revealing and satisfying in a way that the previous four years have not been.

Give credit to the Cougar defense and the coaching staff -- and also keep in mind the offense and special teams gave up nine of those points. And they contributed to more of the Cowboys' scores as well.

Indeed, Oklahoma State started two drives on the WSU 26- and 18-yard lines. Both times the Cougar D held them to field goal attempts.


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PAUL WULFF SAID this offseason he would have the Cougs tackling better. He was right.

Co-defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears had the crimson stop corps playing 11-hats to the football again.

The defensive line starters under Malik Roberson accounted for 17 tackles. Matt Eichelberger played the best he ever has in a Cougar uniform and lent reasons for optimism for how his year will unfold.

Travis Niekamp's linebackers were impressive, with Greg Trent and Jason Stripling combining for 17 stops between them. Stripling injured a toe and the Cougs hope he'll be ready for Cal but Cory Evans, Kendrick Dunn and newcomer Tyree Toomer -- a true freshman who played with smarts beyond his years on Saturday -- give Niekamp some solid pieces with which to run the chess board.

The secondary under Ball and Sears was solid in run support until the defensive unit as a whole wore down. Chima Nwachukwu showed he might well develop into an elite Pac-10 safety. Corner Alfonso Jackson got hurt but still, the longest pass play the Cougs allowed covered 23 yards.

Credit Oklahoma State as well, they made a number of fine plays. That lob pass was smartly executed time and time again. The pass rush from the Okie State defensive front was a good one against a Cougar o-line where two-fifths of the unit was seeing their first college action. And when the Wazzu stop corps tired, the Cowboys found success running up the middle.

THE COUGAR DEFENSE gave up 367 yards on Saturday. Last year's version might have given up 500 or more in that game.

The offense didn't find it's rhythm until about two-thirds of the game had elapsed. Alas, they were able to sustain it for two drives, a pair of 75-yard and 69-yard touchdown drives, but those were the only times they truly dictated the tempo. Had the Cougar offense been able to put together a drive that lasted more than five plays in the first half -- the seven opening half drives went for five plays or fewer -- well, would, could, shoulda. And special teams were flat out awful.

But the Cougar offense will get it going better than they did in the opener. It may take some time before they find consistency. There may be a few starts and stops, but they can build off that running effort on Saturday and Gary Rogers will get into the flow faster than the did in the opener. Brandon Gibson will haul in those three catches he was unable to corral. The defense will benefit, greatly, from all that.

It's hard to forecast special teams could become a team strength this season but it's not hard to foresee that they will at least be better than they were on Saturday. And you can bet Wulff and staff will be working hard to shore those units up this week.

THIS IS LIKELY going to be a process, the return to winning and bowl games. There will almost certainly be more growing pains to come this season. Washington State needs an infusion in depth, and they need more talent and grit. And they're getting it, the commitment list of known verbals for Wulff's '09 class speaks to that. But fans of defense should also be heartened by what they saw on Saturday. There will be more good moments to come this year.

Looking beyond this year, WSU takes a hit next season with a number of upperclassmen set to graduate. The Cougs will be young next year. Year Three under Wulff figures to be a good one. But here's the thing. What this staff has already done with the defensive players was telling. There were young players who looked vastly improved from their '07 form. And that strikes a promising chord for both this year and next.

It's worth taking a moment to ponder the '08 crimson defense and what might unfold this year. Because their opening effort was a good one, and like their offensive counterparts, they too should improve both individually and collectively.

A BIG TEST arrives with the home opener, a league game against Cal. If Jackson can't go, three sophomores and a redshirt freshman will likely make up the starting defensive backfield. But the Cougs took away much of Okie State's primary receiver options, save for that lob pass. WSU will need to do a better job against that and also in the short passing game while still maintaining a stout defense over the back forty. But they also allowed no pass play to cover more than 23 yards against Oklahoma State.

Forty percent of Oklahoma State's rushing yards came in the fourth quarter, after the Cougar D tired, and most of them came right up the gut. If the offense does the job against Cal, that doesn't figure to repeat. But it will be a tough game. Cal is a two-touchdown favorite and it's hard to argue the point -- Washington State will have to play very well to win.

But if you have a good defense, you always have a better than average chance, point spreads be damned.

A NEW WEEKLY PODCAST you don't want to miss. Every week this season, Jason Puckett of KJR-AM 950 goes inside the Cougar football team with an in-depth preview of the upcoming Washington State game. Jason Gesser answers your email questions and there's a whole lot more. Click here: Crimson & Gray Weekly Podcast.

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