Heading into Saturday’s game against the Utah Utes, the Washington State Cougars’ defense ranked 68th nationally by Bill Connelly’s S&P+, a metric that combines a bunch of efficiency factors to try and determine the true quality of a unit. In the context of the first four games, that seemed about right; after giving up 322 yards and 24 points to what had been the 115th-ranked Utah offense, my mind didn’t change too much. Same goes for Connelly’s laptop: WSU now sits at 58th on defense by S&P+.
In that respect — and given the manner in which WSU defeated the Utes on Saturday — 2018 is looking like a return to the quintessential Mike Leach team: Excellent offense with juuuuust enough defense to win a bunch of games.
Which means, naturally, that our fans are worried about the defense going forward; we have to worry about something, after all. I mean, if the pitiful Utah Utes offense was able to do that to us — if only for a half, but still — what can we expect the rest of the way, especially against a good offense?
It’s a fair concern. The WSU defense didn’t look great for about half of Saturday’s game, and one could make the argument that the defense’s bacon was saved by some fortuitous calls by the officials down the stretch (Utah fans certainly are trying to make that argument). Combined with last week’s flag fest against the USC Trojans, maybe an implosion is coming against a dynamic offense?
Maybe. So let’s take a look at how the season prospects could be affected by facing better offenses. Here’s a list of the offenses WSU will face the rest of the way that I would consider truly dynamic and truly dangerous — the kind that could torch us to the point that even a really good WSU offense could have a tough time keeping up:
Actually, that’s the list. The Ducks scare the pants off me, but every other team remaining on the schedule has offensive issues of some variety, to the point that I feel like it’s a reasonable expectation for the defense to at least be able to give the offense a fighting chance to win the game.
I wouldn’t begrudge you if you wanted to add Washington Huskies to that list, for obvious reasons, but their offense looks pretty so-so and one-dimensional, despite the team’s lofty ranking. Stanford? They’ve got big receivers who could beast our corners, but there are serious consistency issues there, and Bryce Love is dealing with ankle issues again. Arizona? You obviously haven’t seen what Kevin Sumlin and/or an ankle injury has/have done to Khalil Tate.
WSU has a higher offensive S&P+ ranking than every remaining opponent other than Oregon and Washington (and they’re just barely behind the Huskies). It’s them that should be scared of us. Even the Ducks’ defense is of such a questionable quality that I’m expecting that one to be a shootout in the 40s — and maybe even 50s. And it’s at home. I like our chances.
This is what we’re paying Mike Leach for, people. As much fun as it was watching the Speed D fly around last season, we had to really work hard to get away from the “what’s wrong with the offense?” questions. We, like every other fan on earth, want to see points. To borrow a phrase, we want the SIZZLE with the STEAK. And that’s what we’ve got again.
Embrace it. I don’t know about you, but I had a heck of a lot of fun screaming GO WINSTON GO GO GO GO YEAH BABY YEAH YEAAAAAAAAAAAAH at my TV, pounding the ottoman with my hand before throwing a fist in the air with a Rick Flair-like WOOOOOO.
There will probably be weeks this year where it’s going to take 40-plus points to win. Sure, it would be great to score 40 and allow 10, but we’re not one of the lucky few who can do that week in and week out. So, in lieu of that, let’s go score some points, kids.
With Gardner Minshew II at the helm and this particular corps of receivers catching balls? Again ... I like our chances.
What We Liked
Pac-12 Network is doing this cool thing this year where it visits all 12 campuses for an ESPN GameDay-like pregame show, and it was WSU’s turn for homecoming weekend. Pullman definitely put its best foot forward. A sampling:
The Pac-12 does a lot of dumb things. This idea was not one of them. We’re all incredibly proud of our university, and getting to share some of our favorite things about WSU with whoever might have been watching — it was probably like 500 people, but still — is pretty neat.
After a 13-tackle performance against the toughest rushing attack the Cougs have faced to date, I shudder to think where we’d be if Peyton Pelluer hadn’t gotten a sixth year of eligibility.
I’ll be completely honest: I had never thought of Pelluer as more than a nice player over his career. But after having last season aborted by a broken foot, Pelluer has come back to be the best player on the defense — and I don’t think it’s particularly close at the moment.
He’s leading the team in tackles with 39, including 25 solo stops; the next closest in both categories is Skyler Thomas with 30 and 16. Without Hercules Mata’afa and Daniel Ekuale wrecking shop on the line of scrimmage, Pelluer’s strength and toughness have been invaluable for this defense. As much as I like Jahad Woods, I’m fairly certain he couldn’t do what Pelluer is doing, nor could Dillon Sherman or Justus Rogers.
Let’s just hope he can stay healthy under this kind of work load.
What Needs Work
By my count, WSU had seven drops by its receivers on Saturday. I’m not sure if WSU had seven drops total in the previous four games combined. It’s funny how sometimes these things just get a little weird and seem to snowball — Minshew himself even seemed like he was second guessing whether to trust his receivers at times in the second half.
I’m sure it will all get worked out in time for Saturday; these things happen, and they’re entirely fixable. Still, it’s pretty annoying to think that the Cougs could have been over 500 yards of offense with at least one more TD on the board if the receivers had just done what they had done all year: Reliably catch the ball.
The Cougs head to Corvallis for a big time showdown with the Oregon State Beavers.
Actually, as you know, the Beavers are awful. WSU already is a 16-point road favorite in most places, which is an awfully strange and unfamiliar place for the Cougars to be. About the only thing standing between me and BET THE HOUSE is the weirdness that often ensues for WSU in that stadium.
That said, Ryan Nall ain’t walkin’ through that door. (Although Jermar Jefferson is pretty good!)
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. PT and the game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.