Cougars' D matching the O big play for big play during 5-0 start
There's more than the Air Raid offense to this version of Washington State.
The No. 11 Cougars are proving to be equally fearsome for opponents on the other side of the ball. One reason why Washington State is off to a 5-0 start for the first time since 2001 is that the Cougars have a knack for shutting down opponents at critical junctures. They enter Saturday's game at Oregon near the top of the Pac-12 in several key defensive categories.
Washington State also ranks in the top 15 nationally with 17 sacks and 38 tackles for a loss. The Cougars are second only to the Ducks among Pac-12 teams in both categories.
Getting pressure on the quarterback isn't the only area where Washington State is flourishing. The Cougars lead the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing just 146.6 yards per game. They are second in total defense (275.2 ypg) and rank in the top 15 among FBS teams in both categories.
"We've continued to grow and elevate around the defense," Washington State head coach Mike Leach said. "Some of it is we had a lot of guys that started a lot last year and I think they've continued to get better."
One decisive play against USC encapsulates that improvement. The Trojans trailed by three points in the final two minutes and had the ball at their own 25-yard line. With a quarterback as good as Sam Darnold, that's usually more than enough time to force overtime or win a close game.
Such a scenario never unfolded. Jahad Woods plowed through the middle on a second-down blitz and then popped the ball out of Darnold's hand when Woods sacked him in the backfield. Fellow linebacker Derek Moore blanketed the fumble and that was all the Cougars needed.
Washington State walked away with a 30-27 victory over USC, beating the Trojans at home for the first time since 2002. It was the fourth game this season where the Cougars have gained two or more turnovers. Washington State is 17-3 in such games since defensive coordinator Alex Grinch joined Leach's staff in Pullman.
"Our guys play really hard," Leach said. "They know their role better and so they're real invested in what he's teaching and what we're trying to do."
Seeds for this sort of defensive evolution were laid last season when the Cougars won their first eight Pac-12 games. Washington State ranked third in rushing defense, allowing just 134.2 yards per game. The Cougars were also tied for fourth in tackles for a loss with 72.
A stout defense has made the offense feel even more deadly this season. Washington State is second in the FBS in passing offense (414.0 ypg) and also among the top 20 in scoring (41.0 ppg, tied for 20th) and total offense (495.8 ypg, 19th).
Luke Falk, the senior quarterback steering the ship, is the NCAA's active career leader in passing yards (12,611), touchdown passes (105), passing yards per game (350.3) and total offense (12,308). Falk only needs 990 passing yards to break Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion's Pac-12 record of 13,600.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of www.wsucougars.com)