Cougar defense must find answer to the Q

FORGET ABOUT THAT tough, lightening quick Oklahoma defense. Give no more thought to the recent Washington State coaching pseudo-exodus. Stop worrying about <b>Jason Gesser's </b> health. The <I>biggest</I> obstacle facing the Cougs quest for Rose Bowl glory is Sooner tailback <b>Quentin Griffin</b>.

"Big" being a relative term.


At just five-foot-seven and 190 pounds, big better describes Griffin's style of play than his stature. And should the diminutive back turn some big plays into a big New Year's Day, it's big trouble for No. 6 ranked WSU.


In fact, if there's one factor that will determine the outcome of the Rose Bowl, it's the ability of the Cougars' Steak Eaters to contain "Q."


"The Cougars' front six needs to hold up well against the run. That's the key to the game," former WSU coach Jim Walden told "Griffin is the key to all that Oklahoma does -- he runs, he catches, he opens things up for the passing game."


Walden, now the colorful commentator on WSU radio broadcasts, also notes the danger of putting too much focus on the second team All-American.


"If the Cougars have to put seven men in the box to control Griffin, that will make our pass defense vulnerable and Oklahoma has some talented receivers," he said.


With the numbers Griffin put up this season, however, Cougar Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Bill Doba is probably having trouble taking his eyes off him during film sessions.


Griffin, a senior, has rushed for 1,740 yards for the seventh-ranked Sooners this season and hit the Promised Land 14 times by ground. In addition, he's amassed 259 yards on 33 receptions, taking 3 of his catches to pay dirt.


During Coach Bob Stoop's tenure at Oklahoma, running had never been emphasized in his spread schemes. But with an off season focus on improving the running game coupled with the talent and experience of Griffin, the coaching staff virtually redesigned their offense with the objective of getting Griffin into open field. To achieve this, Chuck Long, the Sooner offensive coordinator, frequently runs his O out of the shotgun formation, tossing in a lot of motions, inside draws and trap plays.


"Quentin is one of those guys that if you get him into space, he's going to make someone miss," Long said.




Griffin was thought to be a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy late in the season, Oklahoma faithful hoping he'd join the honor roll of legendary Sooners - - Billy Vessels (1952), Steve Owens (1969), and Billy Sims (1978) - - who've won the award, but early season stumbles (3 yards on 9 attempts against Alabama; 10 yards on 7 carries against South Florida) - - similar to Gesser's second half performance against Ohio State early in the year - - kept him from seriously contending. He finished 10th in overall votes for the honor despite being, arguably, the nation's top back.


But there's so much more to The Q than that unreal yards-per-carry number (6.8) and 17 endzone visits; attributes that won't show up on any stat sheet and too unglamorous to sway Heisman voters. Griffin is lauded by coaches and teammates alike for his strong blocking, his understanding of his assignments and adjustments, his protection of the swine, and his sure-handedness as a receiver, having a 38-game streak with at least one catch on his collegiate resume.





Griffin will have his work cut out for him in Pasadena, however, when he lines up opposite the stout Cougar defense.


Led by Outland Trophy winner and All-American, defensive tackle Rien Long, WSU finished the regular season ranked second in the Pac-10 in rush defense, allowing just 2.4 hashes a carry and 82 yards per game.


But the tenacious Cougar defense finished out the season spectacularly, allowing just 152 ground yards in the past 5 games. Wazzu has allowed just two running backs to cross the century mark in yardage - - Ohio State's Maurice Clarett (230 yards) and Cal's Little Joe Igber (111 yards) - - both occurring in September.


Two other marquee Pac-10 backs, Oregon's Onterrio Smith and UCLA's Tyler Ebell, had little success against Long and company.


Ebell produced a dismal 10 yards on 9 carries; Smith slogged for 64 yards on 25 runs.


But the key to stopping Griffin may not be in keeping his yardage down, but rather keeping him out of the endzone. In both of Oklahoma's losses this season (Texas A&M and Oklahoma State), the tailback rushed for over 100 yards, averaging over 6 stripes per touch, but failed to score a rushing touchdown.


Walden doesn't see it so simply.


"If Griffin runs for 150 to250 yards, we don't have a chance," he said. "But the way our guys have been playing run defense the last four or five games, you never know."




*Second-team back Kejuan Jones looks to be an able replacement for the graduating Griffin. Jones has scored 14 rush touchdowns this seasons and racked up 607 ground yards.


*Much of the resurgence of the Sooners' running game can be attributed to the hiring of offensive line coach Kevin Wilson, the former Northwestern O-coordinator. Once his schemes sunk in with the Oklahoma line, their hosses have been, for the most part, dominating the line of scrimmage.

Cougfan Top Stories