PULLMAN, Wash. — With Mike Leach calling plays and Luke Falk serving the role of conductor, it’s always going to be Washington State’s offense that receives the majority of the attention.
The reason the 11th-ranked Cougars are still undefeated after toppling Southern California on Friday night is because of their defense.
“I didn’t feel like USC ever got any real consistency,” Leach said after the Cougars’ 30-27 win over USC on Friday night. “Both offenses it was really difficult to do — I wouldn’t say that we did across the board. But I thought they played really steady and came up really big on third down, especially the second half. I felt like we were stopping them pretty consistently. Only an explosive here or a big play there was really all that we had trouble with.”
The win over USC vaulted the Cougars five spots in the new AP Top 25 released Sunday as the celebration from the benchmark victory was finally starting to wind down. It’s the highest ranking for Washington State since the 2003 season when the Cougars were ranked as high as No. 6. It’s the first 5-0 start for Washington State since 2001.
Next up is a matchup Saturday night at Oregon (4-1).
There have been steady benchmark improvements in Leach’s tenure. And perhaps none more important than the Cougars developing a defense that can complement its Air Raid offense.
They call it the “Speed D” in Pullman under third-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. And it proved its worth against Sam Darnold and USC.
“When you think about Washington State, you think about the Air Raid. But tonight I think we proved a point,” linebacker Jahad Woods said.
Washington State came into last week ranked 18th in the country in yards per play at 4.37, with the record-setting Falk at quarterback. It was an impressive stat but one that lacked substance being the teams the Cougars had beaten up on in getting to 4-0 were Montana State, Boise State, Oregon State and Nevada — not exactly juggernauts of offensive fireworks.
But beating USC and forcing Darnold into the worst game of his career immediately validated what the Cougars have been developing on defense. Darnold was 15 of 29 for 164 yards and an interception. Take away an 86-yard TD run by Ronald Jones II and the Trojans managed just 77 yards rushing on 28 attempts.
Even more impressive, the Cougars managed to stymie the Trojans with one starting linebacker — Peyton Pelluer — out due to a foot injury and after losing another starter in Isaac Dotson in the first half to a leg injury. The injuries created opportunities for youngsters like Woods, a redshirt freshman. It was Woods that came on a delayed blitz, sacked Darnold and forced a fumble that was recovered by Derek Moore in the final moments to clinch the upset victory.
“I just had that mindset of always being ready, always being ready to play,” Woods said.
Washington State’s defense has become so reliable it’s changing how Leach will call a game. It used to be that Leach was almost averse to ever punting and playing a field position game. But there he was twice punting near midfield and once from the USC 40 and relying on his improved defense.
“There’s a temptation at times, if we have a chance to pin them back there, there’s a temptation at times to sometimes do that,” Leach said. “The other thing is we’ve got a pretty good punter to do that, too.”
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