Past, present and future collide

I DON'T KNOW if the tide has truly begun to turn -- one game, and a loss at that, does not a far reaching conclusion make. Injuries are piling up and could obscure progress. But compelling signs were seen against against USC and Cougar Nation may one day look back and cite one play, one that served as microcosm for what has been, and what can be. And it had nothing to do with Jeff Tuel.

As impressive as Jeff Tuel looked, as much as the Cougs may have found their quarterback, that's a different story. And it's worth noting that Tuel and the Cougar offense can from this point on pile up huge chunks of yards and even points -- but if the Cougar D doesn't similarly develop, it won't mean nearly enough in the greater scheme of things.

But midway through the third quarter last week, the past and present collided in Los Angeles. Cougar fans have seen it before, too much of it actually. But the end game was different this time.

Andy Mattingly blitzed off the edge off the strong side. It was the perfect call by the WSU coaching staff -- the oncoming Mattingly had Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley dead to rights. The only real question was if Mattingly's hit was going to be thunderous enough to pop the ball loose.

BUT BARKLEY did a stop-and-go move and Mattingly missed him. From sure tackle to jailbreak. After the play was over, Mattingly was beside himself, slamming his hands together in bitter frustration.

Mattingly is a good player, he's in the Cougs' top 7 for tackles this season. But Cougar fans have seen so many tackles that never were in recent years. And if you're looking for a reason why WSU has struggled of late, look no farther than the mistakes on D.

On many occasions, the Cougs scheme correctly, the initial execution goes exactly to plan and places the Cougar player(s) in position to make the play. But then the end game gets fouled up and a good defensive play turns into an offense's celebration. It's frustrating for the players and coaches, it's frustrating for the fans. Looking at Mattingly after the play, it was certainly frustrating for him.

This time, however, the end game was different.

AS MATTINGLY WAS making his charge, the Trojan offensive line moved right. The tight end suddenly peeled off the opposite direction and Barkley too made a sudden boot back to the left. The Trojans' o-line slant was effective, the Cougar d-line went with them, the whole left side was going to be wide open. Except for one thing.

Travis Long read and react. The true freshman pounded his feet and reversed direction in a way not many 6-4, 247-pounders can. And when Barkley juked Mattingly, Long was in position. And he didn't miss.

If Long doesn't make that tackle, Barkley has multiple options, including his wide open tight end or tucking it and run for 20 yards himself. It was wide open. Instead, it was what it should have been.

A Wazzu sack.

SPOKANE'S LONG IS, Jim Walden told me after watching a fall camp practice, going to be a very, very good player for Washington State. Oh, he'll get his "rear kicked" at times this year, said Walden, but the true frosh will be the better for it from his sophomore year on. And "look the hell out" when he's a junior, Walden added.

It's hard to argue with him. So far, Long looks to be ahead of Walden's schedule. He's taken home the Cougs' defensive player of the game award twice in four games already.

Even better news, other defenders are waiting in the wings. Some are redshirting this year, some are expected to arrive in January.

And if Long is an example of what's yet to come, a crimson revival on D is coming. And Cougar Nation will drink it up. The rest of this season, however, will tell another part of the tale.

Will the Cougs in Eugene this week build on the things that went right against USC while decreasing the mistakes? Will they continue to do so through the remaining meat of the schedule? Or will injuries obscure progress and make for a long day? I don't know, but I'm eager to find out.

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