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Cougars need Herculean effort to overcome offensive struggles

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The defense came through again, and the offense has two weeks to figure itself out before the Apple Cup.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Hercules Mata’afa doesn’t look like much, at least in the context of a defensive lineman. You’ve heard the word undersized used to describe him all year — all career — and it’s somehow apt for a player that lines up over the center and weighs in at a chiseled 250 pounds. He’s never seemed to care much about his size or his position, moving along the entire defensive line and playing just about every technique. It doesn’t seem to matter how big he is or where he lines up, though: Nobody can seem to figure out how to block him.

Utah tried, I think. They tried early and tried late. The Utes got so tired of figuring out how to try that they resorted to grabbing Mata’afa and hanging on for dear life, a move of desperation and frustration when every other blocking scheme fails. From the opening whistle on Saturday, Mata’afa had the Utes quarterback and running backs under duress, setting the tone for the rest of the game.

By halftime, Mata’afa had four tackles for loss, three of which were sacks. He forced and recovered a fumble, looping around from over center, skirting the left tackle, and stripping and recovering the ball in one beautiful, fluid motion. The only tackle for loss that wasn’t a sack snuffed out Utah’s attempt at a trick play — a reverse with a pass option that ended up losing 15 yards. He finished the game with eight tackles, all of which were solo, including five tackles for a loss and those three sacks. He was in the face of Tyler Huntley all day, causing pressure that led to mistakes and turnovers, even in ways the stat sheet won’t show. It was as dominant a performance from a defensive lineman you’ll see, something special that Mata’afa made look routine.

The Cougar defense forced three turnovers in the first quarter alone, swarming to the ball and setting the tone. This was the Washington State defense we’ve become accustomed to. It forced negative plays. It turned over the offense. It looked like 15 guys instead of 11. And it had Utah on its heels right away.

In the first quarter alone, the Cougar defense came up with the ball three times, leading to field position either in Utah territory or very near it (one drive started at midfield). A fourth drive went backwards 22 yards, resulting in a punt that was returned inside the Utah 30. Tasked with setting the tone on the road, the Cougar defense blew the doors off Utah to open the game. It should’ve been over before it even got started.

But for the second-straight game, a dominant defensive performance was nearly wasted. Against Stanford, the Cougars gave up one long run to Bryce Love and one sustained drive that ended in a flukey fumble for a touchdown. They otherwise clamped down, only to watch the offense struggle to put up points. It happened again on Saturday as the defense got itself off the field quickly, repeatedly, only to see the offense sputter and fail to put the game out of reach.

That’s been the downfall of this year’s Washington State team. There are moments in games where there’s a chance to put a team away, to step on the throat and end the game comfortably. That came in the first quarter on the road against Utah. Those three turnovers and the short field from a nice punt return resulted in 13 points, in one touchdown, two field goals and a miss. Opportunity after opportunity was wasted, and a game that should’ve been a comfortable, easy, relaxing win came down to a Hail Mary attempt.

On a day that the Washington State defense forced seven turnovers, finished with 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks, it was the offense that left so much on the table. The defense was dominant, which we’ve oddly come to expect this season. The offense looked confused and stuck in neutral, which is uncharacteristic for a Mike Leach team. Everything feels backwards, including games that looked dominant on the stat sheet but felt oh-so-uncomfortable to watch play out.

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There’s an added pressure to this season. After stumbling out of the gate the last two years, the Cougars came out swinging in 2017. They started 7-0, and sit at 9-2 with one more game to go. They’ve risen into the top-10 and fallen backwards. The goal of winning the division and conference is still in front of this team.

It’s a team that has experience along the offensive line and in the backfield, anchored by an experience, record-setting senior quarterback in Luke Falk. This was supposed to be the year the offense mowed team downs, picking up where it left off last season with another year of experience. If the defense could just improve a little bit, things could break right for the Cougars.

Washington State has to operate in cycles. It’s how Mike Price found success, grooming young teams and exploding as the youngsters became upperclassmen. The Cougars can’t recruit straight-up against the blue bloods, so they need to develop, and then throw haymakers with experience. Last season and this season are those experienced teams, and it feels like the window may be closing.

So you feel the pressure of the last two weeks, each of which were a must-win. The defense, which just needed to improve a little bit over last season, has done so much more. It was dominant over the last two weeks and has been spectacular for most of the season. The offense, though, has sputtered in the hands of Falk — leading to him having a seat on the bench twice this year.

It’s baffling to watch a 9-win team while having to debate whether a senior quarterback who has won more games than anyone at Washington State should even be on the field. That’s the pressure the offense is under, and the weight of the expectations that loom over Falk. With the defense playing out of its mind, the offense has to do better than wasting field position and settling for field goals.

With Mata’afa having a career game on Saturday, and the defense as a whole putting on a show, it was the offense — the thing Leach teams are known for — that probably made you want to pull your hair out. A game that the Cougars should’ve won by 30 instead turned into a nail-biter. It probably took years off your life — and the most frustrating part is that it should’ve never been that close.

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Still, Washington State has two weeks. Two weeks to rest up, to get healthy, to stare at tape of Washington, and to get it together. The defense just needs to keep doing what it’s been doing for most of the season. The offense, though, needs to do some soul searching, to figure out how to get back to what’s made it so successful after the last few years, to trust the system.

The Cougars have experience, and the window is open right now. It may not be open for long, and you get the feeling that this team is living right on the edge. They’ve survived 11 games to make it to the Apple Cup with a division title in their sights and a chance to play for a Pac-12 championship on the line.

They’ve done it with defense, with turnovers and tackles for loss. They’ve done it without the high-powered offense we’ve grown accustomed to, flipping the typical Air Raid script. There’s no better time for the offense to spring back to life, to put together a full game, to exchange field goal attempts for touchdowns.

There’s one game left, and it just happens to be the biggest one in Washington state. The defense has done its part, led by Hercules and friends. It’s time for the offense to figure it out.