Like I mentioned in earlier this week, Washington State head coach Mike Leach is someone who is known primarily for being an offensive guru. That doesn’t mean he isn’t good at other things, but it’s his offensive prowess that makes him such a commodity. People love touchdowns. You know it. I know it. The ratings know it. Mike Leach is so good at offense that people are excited for a 3-2 Washington State team that sports an offense that is 78th in the nation in scoring (which isn’t bad, but isn’t great). That said, the unsung (and more impressive) hero of the current upswing in Pullman is the defense.
This squad isn’t full of stars, first-round blue chippers like the Crimson Tide or Buckeye defenses are, but they are getting the job done. They are allowing a tick over 20 points per game (good enough for 38th in the nation), and that’s including their 55-17 beat down at the hands of Stanford this past weekend. Before that game, this defense pitched a shut out against Idaho two weeks ago and had a dominating game against a very talented, very hyped USC Trojan squad that was ranked and mentioned as a real threat for the Pac-12 Championship this season.
They aren’t doing it with pressure, as the team is ranked 58th in the nation in sacks with just eight this season. And they aren’t hurrying the opposing quarterback much, as they have only nine hurries this season. But they are doing it by creating turnovers. Currently, Washington State is ranked 16th in the nation in interceptions with seven, and nine turnovers overall. Sadly for Washington State, more often than not, those turnovers are nullified by the total turnovers on the other side of the ball. To be honest though, their 4-turnover margin is not indicative of how well this defense has played.
They also are keeping their opponents from continuing drives on third down, as they have held opponents to 30% on third down. Where the defense needs work is in the red zone, where they have allowed opponents to score 66% of the time (6-for-9). But the fact is that, at least, they only have let their opponents into the red zone nine times (Stanford was 1-for-2 last weekend).
I have to say, Washington State’s defense is more than solid. In fact, three scores (two against Stanford and one against Auburn) are actually the result of poor play from the offense (two pick-sixes in this past weekend’s game against the Cardinals) and bad tackling by the special teams unit (which allowed a score against Auburn).
The guy to watch has to be senior strong safety Deone Bucannon. Bucannon, a senior from nearby Fairfield, has been playing out of his mind. According to All Coug’d Up’s Joshua Davis, Bucannon is an All-American. I can’t disagree. He has 44 tackles (26 solo) tackles and three interceptions. He has the build to guard those tall, powerful have-him-go-up-and-get-it type receivers who so often dominates in the Pac-12.
September 7, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington State Cougars cornerback Damante Horton (6) intercepts a pass against the Southern California Trojans during the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Someone else who I really like in the secondary who can really wreak havoc is senior cornerback/safety Damante Horton. Horton, thus far this season, has 15 tackles (12 solo) with three interceptions (two of which were run back for scores). The Oakland native (SONNY, WHY AREN’T YOU GETTING THESE LOCAL URBAN PLAYERS?) has been a solid contributor who is already more than halfway to his 2012 totals in tackles (26 total) and his 2011 numbers in interceptions (4 total). There is a reason this guy was on Phil Steele’s All Pac-12 list after his breakout 2011 season (31 tackles, two forced fumbles, three pass deflections and the four interceptions).
The other guy I want to highlight is one who is going to look to have a bounce back game against Cal. Sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe has been a little inconsistent, not playing well against Auburn (6 tackles, 5 solo), USC (6 tackles, 4 solo and 1 pass deflection) or Stanford (5 tackles, 5 solo and 1 pass deflection). However, he was absolutely dominant against Idaho (12 tackles, 8 solo and 2.5 for a loss). He has the size (6’1, 235 pounds) to compete on this level, no doubt. But he is going through a sophomore slump after his season, where he was named all Pac-12 honorable mention last season after finishing with 80 tackles-16th most in the conference – 8.5 of which were for a loss. He also had three sacks and a fumble recovery, and tallied seven or more tackles six times last season.
Where Cal has to focus on this coming weekend is on the run game. While I am not saying the Cougars can’t defend the run, I am saying this defense has allowed more rushing yards (824) and rushing touchdowns (6) than passing yards (795) and passing touchdowns (3). Plus, as mentioned before, this defense has seven interceptions, six of which have come from two of the aforementioned players. Cal must get the Brendan Bigelow-Daniel Lasco-Khaifani Muhammad rushing attack to plow through the Washington State front seven.
Jared Goff (or Zach Kline, if Sonny Dykes suddenly decides to push the eject button on Goff, which would be an absolutely horrible decision) should be left on the back burner this weekend. The pass game should only be something that is used sporadically and intermittently, making the star of the show the underachieving rushing attack.
Quite frankly, this game will not be about what Cal’s defense does. We know they are going to have a rough time stopping anyone, especially without their leader, but they would have had a tough time even with him in the lineup. The game comes down to how effective Cal is on offense. This defense is better than any Washington State Cougar defense we’ve seen in the last five years or so. It may be the best defense that Washington State has featured since their 2002 team, which played in the Rose Bowl that season. They will not let Goff (or Kline) run rough shod over them to a win. They will fight for their fourth win and Cal will need to play at their best (which is going to be hard considering the continuing depth issues and new quarterback “controversy”) to be able to get past this very talented and very tough Washington State team.