On the first play of the second drive of the game for the USC Trojans, Isaac Dotson lay on the ground clutching his leg. As he gingerly walked off the field, Nate DeRider trotted on to take his place.
Facing No. 5 USC, the Washington State Cougars were about to field a front seven that was down both of its starting middle linebackers (Peyton Pelluer and Dotson) and its starting defensive end (Nnamdi Oguayo).
ESPN would have you believe that it was USC that was at an extreme disadvantage because of injuries. But you know what USC has that WSU doesn’t? A bunch of five- and four-star guys behind their starters. USC’s recruiting classes ranked fourth, 10th, second and 10th the last four years. USC should be as well positioned as any school in the country to successfully implement a “next man up” philosophy.
Here’s who played in place of WSU’s injured players:
- A fifth-year senior who only earned a scholarship in August;
- A redshirt freshman making his second start; and
- A true sophomore.
Those three combined with the rest of WSU’s 2- and 3-star USC rejects to more or less whip the Trojans up and down the field for 3.5 hours, holding them to just 327 total yards — the Trojans’ lowest output since Alabama held them to 194 in last season’s opener — as now-No. 11 WSU closed out a five-game homestand with an epic 30-27 victory over one of the titans of college football.
You’ll have to forgive me if I’m still trying to process what I witnessed on Friday night.
Sure, there was a blown run fit that allowed Ronald Jones II the get loose for an 86-yard TD run. In those moments, you see that difference between Jones — the No. 3 RB in the 2015 class — and the Cougs; once he was loose, there was no way he was getting caught. Other than that? It was WSU that dominated the line of scrimmage, and it was WSU that blanketed the wide receivers (coming up with an interception).
SPEED D IS FOR REAL, Y’ALL.
I’ll fully admit that I wasn’t sure what to think of all this “Speed D” stuff as WSU basically quit recruiting big defensive tackles. It made some logical sense to me that the coaches wouldn’t invest a significant chunk of resources into a position of scarcity, chasing ghosts who probably aren’t coming to WSU anyway; if we’re being completely honest, the only reason we had 300-pounders on the roster the last few seasons was because of Joe Salave’a’s connection to American Samoa. And he’s gone.
So, like I said, it makes sense. However ... I mean ... if coaches could regularly get by without athletic 300-pounders, wouldn’t everyone be doing that?
Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I now believe!
What defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has done with this defense in two-plus seasons is nothing short of completely incredible. When Mike Breske was directing this unit, we thought, “My God, if WSU could just somehow put together a below average defense instead of one that was one of the worst in college football, we might actually get somewhere.”
Don’t look now, but the defense isn’t just merely not bad in such a way that it doesn’t sabotage the gains of the offense; it’s actually a strength. Last week in this space, I said, “Oddly enough, the thing I’m most confident about is the defense’s ability to hold USC to around 30 points.” One week later, the defense made me look not stupid. Boy, it sure was nice, that one time, to not look stupid.
Grinch has created an aggressive, attacking defense that matches up stylistically with Mike Leach’s offense. They come at the opposing offense hard, and they come from all angles. They don’t sit back and wait for the offense to come at them; they attack gaps, constantly putting pressure on opponents. And so far, it sure looks like the lack of size isn’t going to be a liability.
Hercule Mata’afa is truly the guy who makes this philosophy go. Undersized but often unblockable by bigger, slower linemen, he wreaks havoc on the line of scrimmage. Mata’afa practically lived in the Trojans’ backfield on Friday — he was the driving force behind that critical goal-line stand that resulted in a field goal rather than the presumed TD — and the rest of the front followed suit, including Daniel Ekuale, who had perhaps his best game at WSU.
Sometimes, you’re going to give up a long TD when you play this way. But other times, you’re going to intercept a pass ... or come up with the biggest play at the most important time:
I can’t speak for anyone else, but Jahad Woods has far exceeded any reasonable expectation I had for him as a replacement for Pelluer. I hoped his athleticism would allow him to make up for much of what he lacked in experience, and I hoped that when the inexperience did show up, it wouldn’t be a killer mistake.
So far, so good. Woods obviously made the play of the game when he sacked Darnold on a delayed blitz to force the fumble that effectively decided the outcome, but I think what’s more impressive is that it appeared to be the same blitz WSU ran earlier in the game, on which Woods allowed Darnold to escape for a sizable gain that eventually ended with a USC touchdown.
I don’t know if he took a little better angle, or if Darnold didn’t see him, or what. But in the most crucial moment, Woods didn’t miss. He also had six other solo tackles to go with that strip-sack, and that’s why the redshirt freshman — making his second start — was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
He’s going to continue to be inconsistent — he actually was in position to stop Darnold on the zone read that tied the game, but he overran his responsibility — but so far, the good is far outweighing the bad. That’s pretty darned exciting.
Woods is a great example of what Grinch has done with this unit: A guy who is put in position to play to his strengths — and extremely well coached. DeRider can be put in that category, too, after stepping in seamlessly on Friday. And how about Dillon Sherman? Oh, you know, just a redshirt freshman walk-on playing key snaps at linebacker against USC, and doing it well.
And I haven’t even talked about the secondary yet. Darnold — ahem, excuse me, sorry ... that’s Heisman Candidate With The IT FACTOR Sam Darnold — rarely had anywhere appealing to go with the ball. Consider:
- First six passes: Five completions for 58 yards.
- Next 17 passes: Five completions for 42 yards.
- Final seven passes: Five completions for 64 yards.
Deontay Burnett, the would-be Coug who flipped to USC on signing day in 2015 and has become the Trojans’ top receiver? Six catches on nine targets for 45 yards. He was a non-factor. And Stephen Carr, the five-star freshman who had been USC’s other home run threat? Five carries for 11 yards.
Darnold was allowed two good drives in the entire game. Two! And the Cougs picked him off once when Sean Harper Jr. beautifully undercut a route, while Marcus Strong should have had the second pick of the day, as a pass in the end zone went right through his hands.
I don’t know how long Alex Grinch is going to stick around; it’s fairly certain his name is going be floated as a hot commodity this offseason. Personally, I really hope it’s at least one more year as this team transitions to the post-Luke Falk era.
But even if he gets an opportunity he can’t turn down at the end of this season, Grinch has done something many people thought was impossible: Pair a stellar Air Raid offense with a stellar defense.
This is what allowed WSU to win despite a less-than-perfect game on offense (courtesy of a plethora of drops and an unlucky turnover at their own 2-yard-line), plus also somehow survive some disastrous punting that allowed USC to move deep into their territory without doing anything. (Side note: The Trojans are lucky they didn’t get embarrassed by a couple of touchdowns.)
The Speed D is a massive part of why this team is 5-0.
You might remember that it took a long time for Leach to hire Grinch after firing Breske. It was presumed that was because Leach — coming off his second three-win season in his first three years — was having a rough time convincing anyone that coaching defense for him was a good career move.
Now? Grinch has proven it can be done. And if he does move along, the next DC will be set up for success.
But let’s not worry about that right now — let’s just dream about what that SPEED D is going to do to Oregon this weekend.
What We Liked
This is what we want to see from the running backs: A weapon that will punish defenses that are overly concerned about other stuff further down the field. Saturday showed us just why they’re still so darned important to what the Air Raid wants to do.
WSU has spent two games pounding opponents with intermediate routes from its receivers after relying a bit too heavily on the RBs in the first two games. On Friday, WSU immediately went back to work down the field, a development to which USC eventually adjusted.
From there, Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks went to work. They were particularly productive on the game-tying drive that ended the first half. Consider:
That’s eight touches for 45 of the 94 yards on the drive, including a pair of first downs and the touchdown. The drive never even faced third down, and that’s largely due to the production of those guys, all three of whom made contributions. The balls that were dumped off were generally done in rhythm at a time when the defense was preoccupied, and Williams and Morrow each ripped off big runs.
It was absolutely classic Air Raid. As Brian wrote over the weekend, WSU dictated the terms of the game to USC all night long, and the Trojans had few answers. The touches were distributed in about the manner you’d desire, the running game wasn’t overpowering but was incredibly effective in moments, a wonderful complement to the passing attack.
Vintage stuff in the most important game so far. This is super fun, y’all.
It’s incredible that Luke Falk often somehow becomes just a little bit of an afterthought, even as this could be the game that launches a Heisman candidacy. He was so, so, soooooooo good, and after wondering whether his development had stalled out, I’m back to totally taking him for granted again.
I swear, I’m really not trying to. I’m trying to always remember how lucky we are that he is ours. If not for drops by his receivers, Falk likely would have been over 400 yards passing with a completion rate well over 70% — and we’d have seen that throw to Jamire Calvin in the first quarter on highlight reels forever.
I’m beyond impressed at how he has bounced back from Boise State. We all knew Falk was one of the toughest guys on the team, but I now have a whole new level of respect for his mental toughness. A lot of coaches treat quarterbacks like they are China dolls, too fragile to do anything drastic with. And who knows — maybe those other quarterbacks actually are that fragile.
Falk, however, certainly is no China doll, either physically or mentally. He once again took his fair share of shots — including one pass on which he stood in so that the route could develop, delivering a perfect throw for a long completion — and he just kept getting up.
I love that picture above, because it’s one of the rare times we’ve seen Falk display emotion. I’m glad he allowed himself to enjoy this. He earned it.
In a game like this, it’s impossible to single out just one person. So here are a few more.
Erik Powell: I’ve started to assume his kicks are automatic. That’s a really nice place to be.
Renard Bell: Here’s a lukewarm take for you — Bell actually is WSU’s best receiver. Discuss.
Andre Dillard, Cody O’Connell, Frederick Mauigoa, B.J. Salmonson, Cole Madison: No, Falk was not kept perfectly clean. That was never a reasonable expectation. But the vast majority of the time, Falk had time to make his throws, and they opened up some holes for the running backs.
Mike Leach: He coached circles around Clancy Pendergast all night, and he had his team ready to play. This is what we’re paying for.
What Needs Work
Punting has become a mess again. Two consecutive terrible kicks after trading punts gifted the Trojans about 50 yards of field position, and it was only because the defense was so good that it only resulted in a field goal.
I’ll be totally up front: I have an inherent bias against all the screwy stuff WSU does with the punting game with rugby kicks etc. I was all set to write a post railing against it before the season started, but I ran out of time. Then, the rugby punts were working, and I thought, “Well, maybe I was wrong.”
Well, maybe I was right. Whichever it is, this can’t happen. Get it fixed.
Dishonorable mention: For goodness sake, can we retire that stupid quick pass to the running back when we’re backed up? It’s become obvious that teams are coaching their ends to look for it and get their hands up. Again, the defense made sure it only cost us three points, but it’s time to take that one out of the playbook in that situation.
Let’s make it three in a row against an Oregon team that appears to be much better coached under Willie Taggart, but which will possibly be down to its third string quarterback (starter Justin Herbert broke his collarbone) and might be minus one amazing running back (Royce Freeman also is dinged up).
Kickoff will be shortly after 5 p.m. PT on Big Fox.