Before we settle in to watch them play versus Arizona, let's look back on how the Cougar defense has performed during the first half of the season.
The key word for the 2010 season is "competitive". While the offense has made significant strides and kept WSU competitive in the last two games, the defense has been... less than stellar. The lowest point total of the year given up by the Cougs so far is 22 points - against FCS Montana State. 35 was the next lowest against SMU. The other games? 65, 50, 42, 43. Points aren't always the fairest metric of defensive evaluation because there are other factors involved (special teams, pick sixes, etc.). However, when a defense is routinely giving up 40 or more points, even in college football, it's a bad situation.
The Achilles' heel for the Cougs in the Paul Wulff era has been rush defense. Measured by yards per attempt, the Cougs finished 120th - dead last - in 2008 (5.78 yds/att), and 116th in 2009 (5.95 yds/att, which is actually worse). In 2010 the Cougs continue to be awful, giving up 6.45 yards per attempt, planting them dead last in the nation once again. However there's a silver lining to this: The Cougs have played two of the top five rushing offenses in college football (USC, Oregon). They've played four rushing offenses in the top 25 when you include SMU and UCLA. The only team they've played not in the top 50 is Montana State, whom I'm obligated to remind you is an FCS team.
Passing defense isn't much better for WSU: Ranked 106th in the country with 8.3 yards given up per pass attempt.
There is a metric, however, that likes the WSU defense this year:
Football Outsiders S&P+ Rankings. Go to their website for a better explanation of how the stat is determined than I can give you. Essentially, it's a measure of a team's success based on every play, and then weighted for the strength of the opponents a team has played. In 2008, the Cougs were 105th. In 2009, they finished 117th. In 2010 - 71st. That's ahead of both Washington (92nd) and Idaho (114th). Now, the S&P+ is flawed a little bit in that a large number of Cougar plays from the last three years won't be included, since the game wasn't considered "close" by their standards:
The S&P+ figures used in the tables below only look at the plays that took place while a game was deemed "close," or competitive. The criteria for being "close" are as follows: a game within 24 points in the first quarter, with 21 points in the second quarter, and within 16 points in the second half.
Sorry, football outsiders, but this is college football. A game where a recent 21-3 first quarter lead by Stanford not only wasn't enough to win, but the Cardinal ended up losing the game by 21 points. This was a game between two high quality, ranked teams. I have a hard time believing a 17 point fourth quarter lead is completely safe in college football, regardless of where the game is being played and who is playing it.
Still, there are signs of hope for the Cougar defense. But that hope hasn't translated into success - at least not yet. That leads us to the unit grades.
This has to be the most disappointing unit on the team, given all the hype surrounding it prior to the season. And it wasn't media hype; Paul Wulff himself said on a couple occasions he expected the defensive line to be greatly improved. But there are still holes in the line one could drive a truck through. And while the Cougs are on pace for more tackles for loss this year than in the previous seasons, there still hasn't been any signs of the dominance we thought we'd see from guys like Travis Long and Brandon Rankin. While it's not their fault things fall apart at the linebacker level and beyond, they had to be the leaders of the defense in 2010 - because they have the best talent on paper. So far, I haven't seen it.
First Quarter Grade: C-
Second Quarter Grade: C-
Ugh. We (and by we I mean Jeff) have covered this issue in great detail. I really can't add anything to it of more value than the piece I linked to. So give that a read - or, if you enjoy torturing yourself, read through it again.
First Quarter Grade: D+
Second Quarter Grade: F
We're far removed from the days of the Super Abdullah Bros. and Jason David, but the WSU secondary is a bright spot in a dark landscape. Well, maybe it just looks brighter given the surroundings. Fact of the matter is, I just don't know what this unit's potential is. That's because until the WSU defense can prove for once that they have the ability to stop the run, the unit can finally creep back a little bit and really get to defending the pass. Instead, the secondary is mostly used as a last line of defense on big rushing plays... not to mention hung out to dry a bit when the Cougars need to load the box against the run.
They're young, inconsistent, but there's a lot of potential here. Deone Bucannon has a chance to develop into a star, and Chima Nwachukwu gives this unit the chance to be competitive for the last half of his senior season. This group just needs to execute on a more consistent basis.
First Quarter Grade: C+
Second Quarter Grade: C+
Somebody - Paul Wulff, Chris Ball, Jody Sears - is going to lose their job if this defense can't play up to the level of competition the offense is. This unit is the only thing holding the Cougs back from a win - and if they can get one down the stretch, it will likely be because we finally held a FBS team under 30 points.
First Quarter Grade: C-
Second Quarter Grade: D