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Interactive Preview: Can the WSU defense step up?

The WSU defense hasn't given up a passing TD in 4 games. Can the Cougars continue that trend vs UW?

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

After seeing Luke Falk get carted off the field Saturday against Colorado, it’d be understandable if Cougar nation woke up this week feeling a little less enthusiastic about their Apple Cup chances. However, I’m still oddly excited. This season, it seems that not only have the leaders of the offense taken on their coach’s personality, but the entire team has.  They’ve internalized Leach’s next man up mentality and I really think that this offense is going to move the ball, whether it’s Luke Falk or Peyton Bender at the helm.

Falk and the offense were getting a lot of pub for being NBA Jam levels of on fire over the last few games, but the Cougar defense hasn’t given up a passing touchdown in 4 (!) games. They’ve been giving up 5.5 yards per attempt over that same stretch.  The defense might do a fair amount of bending, but Grinch has instilled that same relentless mentality with his unit.  They don’t care who you are or what you’re going to do; they bring it every down and their improvement and mental makeup have me confident that Peyton PelluerDestiny Vaeao and company can stop the Huskies enough to get the Cougs the W.

The below chart shows the change in where each Pac-12 defense ranked in YPA in 2014 and 2015.  If you hover over a logo it will show the stats behind their ranking.  I picked the Cougs to go 5-7 this year primarily because of question marks in the secondary.   I’ll gladly eat my crow while looking at them jump 10 spots from last in the Pac-12 in 2014 (8.3 YPA) to second in 2015 (6.6 YPA).  The fun news is that we only lose one starter (Taylor Taliulu) for next season from this bunch.

This version of the same chart shows the improvement in tackles for loss per game from 2014 to 2015.  The Cougar defense doesn’t just sit back and try to keep you in front of them to limit big plays, they take the game to you with aggressiveness and make you respond.  They’ve gone from 7th in the Pac-12 in TFL per game in 2014 to 2nd in 2015. They already have 11 more TFL’s in 2015 than they did in all of 2014.

The last look I wanted to take was at Havoc.  Havoc rate is a stat from Football Study Hall that takes a team’s total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays, the higher the percentage the better.  The Cougars rank 16th in Front 7 havoc rate and 32nd overall in FBS.  They’re 3rd in the Pac-12 in both categories (UW is 52th nationally in Front 7 Havoc and 58th overall, good for 5th and 7th in the Pac-12).

While the Cougs sit just two spots behind Michigan State in havoc rate, their company in S&P+ isn’t quite as confidence inducing.  S&P+ is another Football Study Hall metric that adjusts for opponent while looking at efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers.  The lower the number the better.  The Cougs rank 81st in the country in S&P+ (UW is 12th), sandwiched between Troy and Buffalo.

The scatter plot below looks at the cross section of those two metrics to see how much "havoc" the top defenses are creating.  The higher you are on the Y axis, the better your defense is per S&P+, and the farther to the right you are on the X axis, the more havoc your defense creates.  If you put the filter on the X axis on "Front 7 havoc rate" you can spot the Cougs as a nice little outlier.  Overall, the defense has its warts, but they take a lot of chances and connect often.  We still have a lot of areas to improve on, but our aggressive nature could rattle Browning and the Husky offense.

The thing that stood out to me when UW blew a 17-point lead against Arizona State was how much they went away from Myles Gaskin.  It was like they thought Jake Browning was the shining new thing they needed to show off and not the star freshman from Lynnwood.  UW is feeling really confident right now after pasting Oregon State and Browning absolutely lit up the Beavs.  I like our chances if the Cougs can stop Gaskin early and force UW to put the game in Browning’s hands.

At the start of the year I was like most battered Coug fans before every game, always waiting for the other shoe to drop when something good happened.  After 11 games my mentality has flipped.  We’re good and regardless of who starts at QB I think we’re gonna go get a W.