It's weird that WSU will play UCLA for the second consecutive year in the Rose Bowl thanks to a scheduling quirk that came about because of the 12-team schedule. However, there could be a bit of poetry to the return for at least one of the units on the field tomorrow.
In the wake of last year's loss to UCLA, I took the linebackers to task for their unconscionably bad play against the Bruins, something that led to rushing totals that have been rehashed over and over here and elsewhere. That wasn't their first poor performance -- they had been bad in virtually every game up until that point -- but that was the first game in a while where it felt like the Cougs had a legitimate chance to beat a legitimate team, only to let it slip through their fingers because of the poor play of one particular unit.
In particular, Alex Hoffman-Ellis became my favorite whipping boy for the travails of the defense. Blessed with physical tools unrivaled by virtually anyone in the conference, I grew tired of watching him run himself out of position and take poor angles to tackles. There's real speed and there's football speed, and in two years on the field, he'd demonstrated precious little of the latter. I had reached a point where I just didn't think he was ever going to figure it out.
Things started to change last year when, in the wake of the UCLA loss, C.J. Mizell replaced Mike Ledgerwood in the middle, and Sekope Kaufusi was moved back to linebacker and began to be worked in the rotation. The improvement was almost immediate, as the Cougars improbably held Oregon to below their season rushing average. Check out the performance of the defense after the insertion of Mizell and Kaufusi, represented here by Bill Connelly's adjusted points allowed. We're looking at the red line:
Obviously, the linebackers aren't responsible for all of it -- say it with me: "Correlation does not equal causation" -- but the correlation is, indeed, undeniable. That improvement has continued this year, to the point that the linebackers probably are considered the best unit on the defense. Defensive coordinator Chris Ball rarely -- if ever -- takes Hoffman-Ellis, Mizell and Kaufusi off the field, electing to go with a 3-3-5 stack in passing downs rather than a straight nickel. It's a remarkable change.
What's been the difference? I think the biggest is discipline. There's a clear mental maturity that has taken place, especially for Hoffman-Ellis. Much was made this past offseason of how much he was studying film and becoming a more sound linebacker. I was skeptical, but it's obvious he's made some major, major strides -- culminating in his 14-tackle, two-sack performance against Colorado. Mizell and Kaufusi also have physically matured, something that shows for Kaufusi in particular.
Now, much like a good action flick, these guys get the chance to show that these improvements truly are for real by vanquishing their own personal villain at the scene of their greatest embarrassment. You can bet the coaching staff has reminded them of it often this week, as what happened last year clearly is not far from their minds:
Mizell, also standing on the sidelines watching the defense get rocked [against UCLA], just wanted his chance.
"That was exactly what was going through my mind," he said. "It was my first week of just going hard in the film room and going hard every rep, and I wanted to lay it out on the field that weekend.
"And I didn't get to. So I've got a lot still built up in me from last year."
It's interesting to note that while the improvement of their play is undeniable, the numbers don't yet love the Cougars: Connelly still ranks WSU's run defense as 108th in S&P+. It's an opponent-adjusted metric that also still includes preseason projections, so it's important to keep that in mind -- WSU surely is being penalized both for being awful last year and for giving up big yards to SDSU and Colorado rushing attacks that Connelly's system has deemed below average (70th and 73rd, respectively).
The great news, of course, is that both of those rushing totals were inflated by a couple of big runs. I don't say that to play the, "Well, if you take those three runs out of the equation, we only gave up (smaller) yards per rush" game. Those rushes are just as valid as the others. I point it out merely to say, if they can somehow keep those giant gashes from happening, there's a chance that they can limit UCLA's rushing attack.