One of the metrics of an improving defense, besides holding opponents to less than half a dozen touchdowns, an accomplishment in and of itself for the Cougs, is where your leading tackler is. Most often, a linebacker is a leading tackler for a defense. But when a member of your secondary is the leading tackler, it usually means teams are either throwing all over you or running backs are getting past the second level.
For three seasons, Deone Bucannon has been on the podium at the end of the year for leading tacklers, twice going home with the gold. The problem is, Deone Bucannon is a safety but found himself helping in run coverage, saving game breaking runs with open field tackles or being the only guy quick enough to catch a receiver who got behind the secondary. He has frequently been the lone bright spot in a secondary that has spent the last four years getting torched by anyone who once got a participation ribbon at their sixth grade track meet.
With the good, as it is so frequently true, comes the bad. Others can get into the nuances of Bucannon's at times suspect pass coverage but it's the ability to draw flags from even the most forgiving officials (which don't exist in the Pac-12 but I digress) for seemingly avoidable penalties. Regardless of whether you think the rule is a good one or not perhaps standing over a guy you've just leveled isn't the best idea when it can cost your team 15 yards.
At times, Bucannon looks like the All-Conference senior he is and at others, he looks like the highly skilled but wild, out of control freshman he was. Against the Auburn Tigers, tackles in space saved countless yards. But later on, launching himself at ball carriers with tackles that were begging for flags with arms wrapped around the upper body could've cost his team significant yardage. Although it's certainly to a lesser degree, the offense has their Jekyll and Hyde in Connor Halliday; the defense has Deone Bucannon.
This Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Bucannon and his cohorts in the secondary will be facing off against the biggest female hygiene product of a head coach in the country. But they'll also be staring down arguably the best stable of receivers in the Pac-12 with Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and Xavier Grimble. Even though we have no idea who will be throwing to them or if the ball will get there (Cody Kessler is reportedly starting but whether he finishes the game is another issue), these are the guys who can break it for big runs.
Connor Halliday could be the polar opposite of the guy he was in Alabama and if the secondary can't keep this trio in front of them, it won't matter. Lee was the best receiver on the team by leaps and bounds last year and Robert Woods was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft. If the secondary doesn't cover Lee, Agholor and Grimble like a mumu covers Kate Moss (not one of my best but I'm alright with it) WSU is going to spend a lot of time trying to catch-up to USC's wide outs.
This is where Deone Bucannon comes in. We won't get into a discussion about the perceived fairness or unfairness of the officiating against the Tigers. What we can probably agree on is Bucannon's launching tackles where he wraps up high are going to draw penalties in the Pac-12 whether they're textbook or, as it's sure to happen, not. He got away with a couple against Auburn, most notably this one:
Credit where credit is due: that's an insanely athletic move (I AM BATMAN!) but tackles like this against the Trojans will extend drives through penalties and weapons like Lee will make you pay. Although it's likely Damante Horton and Nolan Washington will draw the unenviable task of covering them most of the time, Bucannon is the leader of this unit. His play, his decision making and leadership will need to be on full display. I want him truck sticking ball carriers like he did on Saturday and being a physical, dominate presence is what the Cougars need. But Bucannon must control it. Giving a team like USC yardage they don't earn is something the Cougs can't afford.
USC looked like a beatable team against a really bad Hawaii Warriors squad in Honolulu. If a secondary led by Bucannon can do their job and keep this talented trio under control, the offense just needs to do their part and the Cougs could score an upset in Los Angeles.
You know what, that tackle, despite its obvious lateness and probable 15 yard advancement for the offense next week, is just too damn awesome. He seriously looks like Batman.
Deone: You either run out of eligibility a hero or live long enough to see yourself get flagged for a lot of personal fouls. I can do those things. Because I'm not a hero, not like Hamza. I tackled those people. That's what I can be.
Mike Leach: No, no, you can't! You're *not*!
Deone: I'm whatever Pullman needs me to be.
Leach: They'll throw flags on you.
Deone: You'll hunt me. You'll scream at me for those penalties. Set Breske on me. Because that's what needs to happen. Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded and not have a flag thrown for the stupidest crap possible by Glasses Ref.