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WSU defense clamps down on Oregon en route to early bowl eligibility

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Hello defense, it's good to see you.

Washington State v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The tone was set early, and once again it came from a place that you wouldn't expect on a Mike Leach team, but should be familiar with by now. After Oregon went backwards 10 yards then chunked yardage to pickup a first down, Oregon forced a fourth-and-one, and the Ducks went for it in their own territory. The Cougar defense was having none of it. Get off the field.

That stop was followed by a quick strike, a drive that took one play and ended in a touchdown. The Cougars, coming off a win over USC last Friday night were facing their first road test. Any nervousness, any butterflies, were gone in a flash. And it was clear that the Cougar defense had a singular goal in mind that they were planning to take pride in: Get off the field.

This was a Mike Leach team controlling a game with its defense, pushing an opponent that had run all over teams this year around while not allowing much all game. The Cougar defense lined up on a fourth down play three times against the Ducks and stuffed all three. They held Oregon to half the yardage it averages on the season, and gave up a measly 10 points — 7 of which came on a drive that started deep in Washington State's own territory.

It's a defense that's banged up, missing most of its linebacking corps. It's a defense that is still figuring out the cornerback situation (and missing at least one due to injury). It's a defense that just doesn't seem to care, though.

***

Listening to the postgame show, Jessamyn McIntyre described the defense as having an attitude like "Okay, be right back, we're gonna go get the ball back for you. It's fine. Don't worry. Be back in a minute with the ball." And they did just that: Three takeaways to go with those three turnovers on downs, while also holding Oregon to 2-17 on third down. Get. Off. The. Field.

Even as the Cougar offense struggled to find a rhythm, the defense just hummed along, doing its job and taking care of business. Even as it was backed up, thanks to some punting woes, the defense kept things moving right along, staying pretty much on schedule throughout and dictating the game.

It was like watching a boa constrictor toy with its prey. Washington State knew it could sell out and take away the run, daring Braxton Burmeister to beat them with his arm (and pressuring when he tried). The more Oregon struggled, flailed and pressed, the more Washington State clamped down. The Cougars forced three turnovers, one turnover on downs and three punts in the second half while pitching a shutout and letting the offense finish the Ducks off en route to a comfortable 33-10 win in Eugene.

There were injuries and imperfections, too. The offense wasn't quite clicking, and found itself operating in fits and starts. But it's an offense that can handle a long drive (75 yards to start the second half) or turn a turnover into fast points (two drives that lasted one play and found the end zone). It did what it needed to, and considering the defense what it needed to do wasn't much.

The linebacker injuries are worrisome too. Isaac Dotson wasn't ready to go, and the Cougars were playing a lot of unfamiliar faces against the Ducks. And yet, against an Oregon team with a million weapons in the backfield, the Cougar defense only allowed 132 yards on 45 carries. The trademark long Royce Freeman touchdown run didn't happen either. They've taken the next man up mentality to heart, though there is cause for concern.

***

When Leach came to Pullman, fans would've given anything to get to the postseason, to make any kind of bowl, to break a streak that had dragged on what felt like forever. Last night, in the sixth week of the season, the Cougars became bowl eligible — one of the first teams in the country to do so this season.

The Cougars are off to their best start since the glory years of the early 2000s, the streak of 10-win seasons that preceded a decade in the dark. They're 6-0, now with wins over USC and Oregon under their belts. They came into the week ranked 11th, and exited it in the top-10.

You're watching something special, and seeing things finally click into place for Leach and the coaching staff. He's got his usual offense, led by a talented and level-headed senior in Luke Falk, along with a trio of dangerous running backs, an experienced offensive line and a wide receiver corps that's finding its footing. The defense is bringing the team along, though, all with an attitude that comes from Alex Grinch and permeates throughout the team, driving a lot of this early-season success and complimenting the offense well ... by getting off the field.

You're watching fun football, too. It's fun to see a defense flying around, creating pressure, getting into the backfield and forcing turnovers. It's fun to see an offense that can score in a hurry, or rip off chunks of yardage on a long drive. It's fun to see Erik Powell drill field goals from all over the place (even if you'd rather have touchdowns).

As a Cougar fan, you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go wrong, for that zero in the loss column to go away. You probably worried about this week in Oregon. You were probably anxious when things got underway and stayed anxious until the second half. And that's okay.

But by this point in the season, we've got a pretty good idea of what this year's team is. The Cougars think they can do anything and take on anyone right now. And they may just be right.