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NCAA Football: Eastern Washington at Washington State

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2017 WSU Football Preview: Hercules Mata’afa returns to terrorize offenses

Is this the year the defensive lineman fully delivers on his big-time promise?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2017 Washington State Cougars football season. For previous installments, click here.

On the list of things that make the crowd roar, a touchdown is probably at the top. A close second, though — in fact, it might even be a 1a/1b situation — is a quarterback sack.

Sacks are invigorating for one team, demoralizing for another. It represents the defense flat out whipping the other team — most of the time by a defensive lineman exploding past his blocker before the quarterback even has much of a chance to get rid of the ball.

The latter is where junior defensive end Hercules Mata’afa has made his name, leading the team in sacks for two consecutive years.

It’s undeniable that Mata’afa — besides having one of the coolest names in college football — can be practically unblockable at times. At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he’s got the size and strength of a defensive lineman but the explosive closing speed of a linebacker 40 pounds his junior.

... and ...

... and ...

He was selected to the all-conference second team behind three linemen drafted into the NFL (Solomon Thomas, Tak McKinley and Elijah Qualls) and a fourth who probably will make an NFL roster (Hunter Dimick). He was either the best or second best player on the defense of a team that won eight regular season games and played for a chance to go to the Pac-12 Championship game. Pro Football Focus adores him. I have no earthly idea what these numbers actually mean, but they seem pretty good!

By all accounts, it was an incredibly successful season for the redshirt sophomore from Lahaina, Hawaii. And yet ... well, it sure felt like there was some more meat on that bone.

As the clips above show, Mata’afa was absolutely devastating through the first five games of the year, registering 8.5 tackles for loss, which included three sacks. But over the next five games — against some of WSU’s weaker competition — Mata’afa registered just 2.5 tackles for loss with zero sacks. And then when the competition got tough again, he did pick up a sack each against Colorado and Minnesota, but he got just half a tackle for loss against Washington.

For the year, Mata’afa would finish with 13.5 tackles for loss with five sacks, which was a tick up in the former from his sophomore year (11) and fifth in the conference, but the sacks took a dip (from seven) and were good only for a tie for 13th.

Sacks certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all — getting pressure can aid in your teammates getting a sack or the quarterback throwing an incompletion, and those obviously are great outcomes. Examples:

... and ...

If PFF’s numbers are to be taken at face value, Mata’afa was exceptional at getting pressure in 2016. But failing to get home for a sack — even if the pressure forces him out of the pocket — means giving the quarterback an extra opportunity to make a play.

In each of the clips above, a more aware QB would have flipped the ball out of bounds rather than taking a loss. (Yes, I know it was third down, but still.) And we all remember the times over the past couple of years where an athletic quarterback has improbably scrambled for yards — sometimes lots of them — after appearing dead to rights. This could have ended badly against a better team; as it was, the QB picked up about seven more yards than he should have:

That’s why, following a season in which the Cougars registered just 20 sacks as a team (ranking 10th in the Pac-12), there’s been such an emphasis this fall on WSU finishing plays on the quarterback in the backfield. The drop in production last year certainly wasn’t all on Mata’afa, but after Kache Palacio, Ivan McLennan and Darryl Paulo graduated, he became the bell cow, and he didn’t quite deliver on the promise.

Mata’afa needs some help from guys like Nnamdi Oguayo, Logan Tago, Derek Moore, Frankie Luvu, and Dylan Hanser. But for him to finally deliver on his tremendous potential, double-digit sacks should be the goal for Mata’afa. The Cougs haven’t had a guy do that since Mkristo Bruce racked up 11 in 2006. (Travis Long came close in 2012 with 8.5.)

"He's got to be the most productive defensive lineman in the country, because that's what we expect from him," defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.

Mata’afa is doing the work to try and vary his pass rush moves, and perhaps the addition of new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps will help in that regard.

"I’m working on rips more," Mata’afa said. "I’m working on different steps as well."

If it translates and he can bury Sam Darnold a time or two on Sept. 29, Martin Stadium will explode.

Do it 10 times overall, and Mata’afa is probably off to the NFL — a win-win for both him and WSU.

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