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The Monday After: Defense is leading the way in WSU’s resurgence

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Not what you expected from a Mike Leach-coached team, but here we are!

Washington State v Stanford
Isaac Dotson had a huge game.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I’m pretty sure offense will always be at the fore in terms of analysis when it comes to WSU football — at least, as long as Mike Leach is in charge and the offense is scoring 43.8 points per game, which happens to currently be ninth in the nation.

But let’s be totally honest with ourselves: This current turnaround, the latest installment of which was a 42-16 whipping of No. 15 Stanford on the road on Saturday, is being driven by the defense.

Yes, the offense is playing well. Really well! But that was to be expected. This level of play from the defense was unexpected, and beyond that, there’s just this feeling that the defense is setting the tone for the team.

Early in the year, after the Cougars lost to Eastern Washington, I heard something to this effect a number of times from a number of different places, but most prominently from Brock Huard, who I think is a real smart dude (despite his questionable educational pedigree) and whose radio show I often listen to on my way to work. Paraphrasing:

“This is just what you get from Mike Leach. You’re going to get points, defense is going to be an afterthought, you’re going to win some games you don’t expect and you’re going to get some real head scratching losses. That’s just the deal.”

Of course, he didn’t hear me when I yelled at my radio THIS WHOLE UNEXPECTED WIN/LOSS IS THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT LEACH DID AT TECH, but that’s not really here nor there. More galling to me is the prevailing opinion that Leach just doesn’t care about defense. Or, alternatively, doesn’t care enough to give it a fighting chance to be successful.

I mean, I get it to some degree, given Leach’s well-earned reputation as an offensive savant. But the idea that caring about offense and defense have to be mutually exclusive is sort of puzzling to me; while virtually every coach prefers emphasizing one side of the ball over the other based on coaching history and/or personal preference, any coach who has any modicum of success doesn’t simply ignore one side of the ball. You show me a coach who has done that, I’ll show you a coach who has been fired after a short time.

I mean, Leach cared so little about defense at Tech that he famously fired his defensive coordinator — the man who gave him his first coaching job — midseason. The guy who took over, Ruffin McNeill, ended up leading the defense that helped Texas Tech reach No. 2 in the AP poll in 2008 before moving on to a pretty successful run as head coach at East Carolina following Leach’s dismissal.

But I guess it’s a lot easier of a narrative to just say AAARGH MIKE LEACH IS A PIRATE AAAARRRRGH WHO LOVES TO THROW IT 80 BILLION TIMES A GAME DEFENSE BE DAMNED AAAARRRRRRRRRRGH

NCAA Football: Idaho at Washington State
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is some kind of miracle worker.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Truth is, Leach has never not cared about defense, and certainly not at Washington State. Mike Breske came to Pullman with a pretty decent reputation. And when that turned out to be a disaster in two of three years — the last of which featured a defense that sabotaged an offense that certainly should have been good enough to get WSU to at least a bowl — Leach fired Breske and went on a long search for a bright, young, energetic defensive mind that turned out to be an obscure secondary coach from Missouri.

Last season showed the power of what even some modest improvement on the defensive side of the ball could do, given an above-average offense.

This season is now showing the power of what more significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball can do, given an even better offense.

There are a couple of interesting angles to this. The first is that, coming into this year, I simply was hoping that the defense could hold steady on last year’s improvement, given the personnel losses; the secondary gets a bit better, the defensive front gets a little worse, and it’s a wash that allows the team to be better on the whole given the offense’s expected improvement.

It’s now looking like that might have been underselling the potential of this group, given the way it more or less dominated both Oregon and Stanford — a pair of wildly different teams from a stylistic standpoint who could only muster three touchdowns between them in 21 non-garbage time drives. Over the course of those drives, WSU outscored the erstwhile kings of the Pac-12 by a whopping 57 points — 93-36.

Which brings us to the second interesting angle: It sure didn’t look like this was on the horizon after Eastern Washington dropped the easiest looking 45 points you’ll ever see to open the season ... and yet, here we are. I don’t think it’s really possible to overstate the job defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his staff have done coaxing improvement out of this group.

“Grinch is the man,” wide receiver Gabe Marks said as he met with the media on Monday. “Grinch is going to be a really good head coach one day I figure. It’s inevitable, you know what I mean. The way he’s able to lead those guys over there on defense and the energy that he brings to the team – from day one I was like ‘all right this guy’s not to be messed with.’

“And he doesn’t even coach me, like I barely see him at practice ‘cause they’re doing their own thing. But I can feel like I want to make plays for him. He’s got that kind of personality about him where you just want to play for him.”

The biggest area of improvement has been on the defensive line. The unit of greatest concern heading into the season was the unit of greatest weakness in the first two games.

Then the bye happened, and these guys have been on fire ever since, led by Hercules Mata’afa. The man with the best name in college football has racked up 10 tackles in the last two games — from a defensive end position — and half of those are tackles for loss, including a pair of sacks (one of which went for a safety).

But it’s not just him. Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale have been rocks in the middle, as Jed Collins wrote about here for Cougfan, and I think you also have to throw in the name of Garrett McBroom, a juco transfer who has worked his way into the starting lineup. That has once again freed up the linebackers to fly around and make aggressive plays on ball carriers, a stark contrast to the slow, reactionary style they played with early in the year. Take away one 75-yard run by Royce Freeman (yes, I know it happened, blah blah blah), the defense held the two best running backs in the Pac-12 to 98 yards on the other 20 carries.

Additionally, Shalom Luani’s move to nickel has proved to be a stroke of luck/genius; take nothing away from Parker Henry, but having an all-conference-type player in Luani that close to the line of scrimmage to make plays with his explosive closing speed has been a total boon. Meanwhile, Dylan Hanser passed Logan Tago on the depth chart at Rush LB, and it’s easy to see why, as Hanser just gets better and better every week.

And Isaac Dotson ... well, we’re going to talk about him in a second.

Point is, you could make a pretty good argument that this is currently the second best defense in the conference, which is absolutely crazy considering not just where the defense started, but that it’s coming on a Mike Leach-coached team.

Or maybe it’s not that crazy at all.


What We Liked

Switching over to the offense, we loved the way that Luke Falk threw the ball in this game, save for the two awful throws that ended in interceptions. In particular, we loved how he often threw the ball into semi-open windows and trusted his receiver to make a play.

This shift allowed River Cracraft to have a vintage performance a la 2014 when Connor Halliday would just throw it to Cracraft whenever the team needed an important catch. Halliday knew he would be open, and he usually was.

This time, it was Falk throwing into those windows — like this one:

They weren’t risky throws — there wasn’t really an opportunity for the defender to make a play that could hurt the Cougs. Falk’s first TD to Tavares Martin Jr. also comes to mind, in which he made a pinpoint throw that, at worst, might have been tipped away by a defender.

Falk also did a fair amount of this against Oregon, which was a far better performance than it got credit for, thanks to being overshadowed by the anomalous rushing performance in that game. But this was what we’ve been waiting for, and Stanford paid for it time and time again.

Honorable mention: The offensive line, which gave up three sacks and had a few pre-snap penalties, but was generally awesome against a front that has given it fits for years.


Who Impressed

Back to defense! How about Dotson (pictured at the top), who had a number of huge plays in the game, including a fumble recovery and an interception? The latter was an incredibly athletic fingertip job that elicited an audible ooooooooooooh in my living room.

And that might not have been Dotson’s best play. He made an incredible open-field, one-on-one tackle of McCaffrey in precisely the kind of situation that McCaffrey generally embarrasses the linebacker. It was a stunning play that, in my mind, is easily the most underrated individual play of the game.

The coolest part about Dotson’s game is that he’s finally getting a chance to really show what he can do. The redshirt junior had been plagued by injuries in his first three years, finding it difficult to stay on the field — first at safety, then at nickel.

Now, he’s found a home as Jeremiah Allison’s replacement at linebacker. What a cool story.


What Needs Work

Erik Powell ... please, brother, look up my guy WazzusJobu and figure out just what kind of chicken you need to sacrifice to be able to hit a curveball make a field goal. We’re going to need you eventually. For the love of everything that is good and right and holy, do something different than what you’ve been doing.


Up Next

The Fakest Tough Guy brings his REALLY ANGRY band of Fake Tough Guys From Westwood to Pullman for what figures to be a very cold (and possibly rainy) night game under the lights in Martin Stadium. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m PT and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Of note: Josh Rosen is banged up and might not play. The line has already moved in favor of the Cougs.

Let’s do this!