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Tracy Claeys’ defense must have their best game yet to leave Houston with a win

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State Photo by Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The only defense against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.

John Locke

Through the first two games, as expected, the Washington State Cougars are 2-0. Through the first two games, as expected, the Cougs have thoroughly dismantled their opponent. Through the first two games, as expected, the offense has hummed right along, averaging 58.5 points per game, thanks to outputs of ... /checks notes

58 and 59 points. Things are going consistently well on that side of the ball!

The defense, meanwhile, is performing ... still fairly admirably! It’s not as if the New Mexico State Aggies and Northern Colorado Bears blew their doors off; the teams scored just a paltry seven and 17 points a piece in their contests in Martin Stadium. Neither the Aggies nor the Bears ever really got things going for an extended period and, in fact, after touchdowns to tie both games, opposing offenses were largely shut down by the Washington State defense.

So why then am I left with a nagging feeling of a defense with plenty of work left to be done? The offense lost plenty of their biggest names to be sure but they were at positions where WSU was clearly better equipped to absorb the blow. There’s little doubt still having Gardner Minshew II, James Williams and Andre Dillard would improve this offense but it appears, so far at least, Anthony Gordon, Max Borghi and Liam Ryan are filling in more than admirably.

The losses on the defensive side appear to be taking more of a toll. No Taylor Comfort in the middle of the defensive line; Peyton Pelluer’s absence at linebacker and Jalen Thompson’s unexpected departure have all left very evident gaps on that side of the ball. WSU struggled to get pressure on NMSU’s quarterback throughout and while that picked up against Northern Colorado, large, Mack truck sized holes left in the line by the Bears’ offensive line were easy to see. At linebacker and in the secondary, the tackling has been sub-par at best at times with corners and safeties also struggling in coverage.

Tomorrow, WSU faces the best offense they’ve seen by a long shot all year when they venture into NRG Stadium to face the Houston Cougars. It will be incumbent on defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to ensure his unit it ready to face an offense as loaded with offensive talent as any it will likely see until they head to Eugene next month.

To be sure, some of the struggles on defense can likely be attributed to Claeys doing some experimenting on that side of the ball as Craig and Jeff outlined earlier this week. Daniel Isom, for instance, played three different positions alone against UNC. If there was a good time to do some of that experimenting, it was the last couple of weeks. Claeys even said last month his young defensive backs were not ready for game action and it appears they still needed the first two games for some seasoning.

Given who the Cougars will see this week in Houston, lets hope the seasoning is finished and the experimenting is over. The Cougars’ offense is far, far and away the best one WSU will have seen all season with a better version of Khalil Tate in D’Eriq King at quarterback and playmaker Marquez Stevenson at wide receiver. Though the Cougars are still getting used to new head coach Dana Holgorsen’s playbook, he still has plenty of offensive weapons to play with.

The old trope has been trotted out plenty this week about WSU’s perceived troubles with running quarterbacks. Though I’m more worried than I may have been last season, or the one before, WSU still has plenty of talent to keep him somewhat contained. You won’t be able to stop King every time; just as the one smart thing I ever said about Bryce Love years ago held very true, King is going to rip off a big one or two. He’s just too athletic not to. The key then will be minimizing King’s ability to take off and run and containing what can be a lethal RPO attack from too many big plays.

Tracy Claeys’ defense faces their stiffest test yet this season and they need to play their best game. They could count on out-athleting their opponents the first two weeks but that will largely not be the case tomorrow. You’re not going to keep Houston out of the endzone on every drive, but you need to do enough to limit the damage to keep your team in the game.

Expect problems and eat them for breakfast.

Alfred A. Montapert

Tracy Claeys, the most important person vs. Houston.