Athleticism isn't normally a word one would associate with me. Muscle building, high metabolism, the ability to either run great distances or short ones extremely quickly are not traits that run in my family. We'd be excellent bringing water and Gatorade to Usain Bolt, not running in the same race with him.
But there was one thing I was really, really good at as a kid: goalkeeper. I'd never been much for motivation from coaches rooted out of yelling, so playing a position most coaches had so little understanding of helped me avoid most of their ire. What motivated me was breaking hearts and being the last line of defense. Crashing into forwards on break aways was one of my favorite things, mostly because goalies were treated like quarterbacks and fouls would never bee called against them. I was a weird kid.
One season though I'd had an awful first two games. Easy goals were slipping through and my team was losing close games, probably because of me. Finally, my coach had seen enough when I was struggling during a scrimmage at practice and sent me for laps because "the posts probably have a better chance of getting in the way than you do." He didn't yell but it definitely made me angry. For the rest of that practice, I played mad, trying to prove that the air between the posts couldn't be as effective as me.
In the next two games, I came away with a clean sheet. I thought of little else other than proving my coach wrong in those games.
Through the first two games of the season, the defensive line's play was, to put it mildly, disappointing. Against an Eastern Washington offensive line replacing all of their starters, they could hardly lay a finger on Gage Gibrud. The following week against Boise State, Brett Rypien regularly had all the time in the world to stand as a statue and knit a sweater in the pocket.
Mike Leach was not pleased. He called his team out for not being tough enough just a day before going full dad mode and ripping Pullman police to shreds in an unusually composed statement for the fifth-year head coach.
The following week against Idaho, we saw the results of that speech. Defenders spent plenty of time in Matt Linehan's ktichen, so much in fact they probably could've made me a turkey club. Frankie Luvu had his coming out party while Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale did what we've known they can do for years.
But perhaps most importantly, Hercules Mata'afa, he of the All-Name Team, finally appeared. Three games into the season, Hercules finally looked like the freshman all-American we fell in love with last year, mauling defenders and generally making life a living hell for the quarterback and running backs.
Then, against Oregon last weekend, Hercules turned in, if not a virtuoso performance, something damn near it. Mata'afa was causing near constant problems for the Oregon offensive line, spending more time on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage than the other. Watch him closely on this safety: just a simple, violent swim move and Mata'afa does the rest with his speed.
An impressive play to be sure, and the one most everyone remembers from last Saturday. But rewatching the game, I found one that might be even better, demonstrating the raw power Mata'afa plays with.
More on Herc: watch him put the LT on stakes and then basically use one arm to stop ROYCE FREEMAN. pic.twitter.com/LVL9bhORqD— Michael Preston (@RM_Preston) October 6, 2016
Let's review that: Mata'afa puts the left tackle on ice skates and then, in essence, uses one arm to tackle Royce Freeman. That's not a different Royce Freeman than the one that's perhaps the second best back on the West Coast, that's definitely the guy who weighs north of 220 pounds and runs like a bull hopped up on a case of Mountain Dew.
Hercules Mata'afa made an offensive lineman look ridiculous and then used a single arm to tackle an over-caffeinated bull. That's entirely accurate, in my opinion.
This week, the task for the defensive line and Mata'afa only gets tougher. Christian McCaffrey may not be having the year that he had when he was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy but he's still, well, Christian McCaffrey. Outside of one big run last year in Pullman, the Cougs kept the All-World running back well contained and forced Stanford to win the game through the air and with a long run from Kevin Hogan.
This year's Cardinal are not last year's though. Although Kevin Hogan was never a world-beater quarterback, forcing the Cardinal to put the ball in the air wasn't necessarily a death sentence for them. This year it very well may be. Neither Ryan Burns nor Keller Chryst has shown they can really be counted on to keep the offense moving when it doesn't involve merely giving the ball to McCaffrey.
On top of that, Stanford is breaking in three new offensive lineman and their right tackle will likely miss Saturday's game. This game sets up well for Mata'afa and his compatriots along the line to absolutely and utterly impose their will upfront. They kept McCaffery in check last year and on passing downs, getting to the Cardinal quarterback will, in theory, be easier than last year's addition.
Hercules Mata'afa has spent the last couple of weeks scaring the daylights out of opposing quarterbacks and bringing down running backs with one arm. Another week of doing this and WSU stands a good chance of winning their third straight game and getting through a critical stretch of games with at least two wins.
Our rec league kept track of wins and losses, awarding points for games as they normally do in soccer but for me, finishing first was never a huge deal. It's rec soccer after all; if I cared more about championships, I probably would've played select.
Later that same year though, we played a team from Carnation I absolutely hated. Cheap shots were their specialty, out of view of the referees. Spikes up tackles were always in the back of your mind.
They were dominant, too. Usually finishing at the top of our division, managing even a tie on their home field was a chore. That same year I started slow, we played them clean, hardly turning the ball over and by the time 90 minutes was up, we'd not only slayed the dragon but buried it 3-0.
Wazzu has the same opportunity on Saturday. Kill the dragon that has run this division for the last few years. And you don't even have to play on what is basically a swamp next to the Snoqualmie River to do it.
Hercules Mata'afa, your most important player for Washington State vs. Stanford.