PULLMAN – The players gathered at the coach’s house, some of them dressed in Halloween garb. Darren Markle won best costume. He came as himself, wearing a body-building outfit.
They weren’t there to study film, or discuss scheme, or perform up-downs. Instead, Washington State’s linebackers and defensive linemen typically just eat dinner, play Xbox and watch football when they visit Jeff Choate’s house.
“I think these kids have to know that we care about them outside of what they’re doing between these white lines, and not talk a lot of football,” said Choate, WSU’s linebackers coach.
As for the white lines, the brand of defense being played between them is getting better and better.
WSU’s numbers aren’t markedly better than last season. In some areas, they’re worse. But the Cougars’ improvement – in speed, in effort, in their physical nature – is apparent. And they’ve at least played well enough recently to inspire confidence that even better things could lie ahead.
“We have one standard,” Choate said. “We’re not going to deviate from that standard in our expectations. We’re going to get it out of these guys or somebody else is going to come along and do it, but we’re going to get it.”
Their two most promising performances both resulted in losses. Both were on the road. The first was a 19-6 setback against Oregon State in which WSU held the Beavers without a touchdown in the first half. The second was last week against Stanford, a game the Cardinal won 24-17 despite gaining just 256 offensive yards.
That WSU held Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor to 58 yards on 21 carries was especially impressive, considering the Cougars allowed California to rush for 318 yards the game prior.
While watching tape of the Stanford game, linebacker Darryl Monroe said Choate turned to his players and told them: “This is how a great defense looks on the regular, and they’re upset if it doesn’t look that way.”
Players are starting to trust that it will.
“That’s why I feel we’ve been making plays and starting to come together as a defense, because we listen to what our coaches say, use the techniques they taught us,” Monroe said. “… We just kind of make a team beat us with something they haven’t shown us or a way that our coach hasn’t taught us to play it.”
While the Cougars allow more yards per game than last season (436.8 through eight games), they also allow fewer points per game (29.6), and have eclipsed last year’s totals in sacks (21 this year, 17 last year) and interceptions (11 so far).
That’s a reflection of defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s more aggressive style. It’s also a product of Breske moving hybrid linebacker Travis Long (7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) all around the defensive front, allowing the senior to rush the quarterback and fill run gaps from different angles.
“You can kind of tell when we run blitzes, you can tell that teams are sliding to Travis,” Monroe said. “And it opens it up for me, which is the reason I give Travis and the D-line a lot of credit for the success the linebackers have.”
Breske said the way his unit played against Stanford needs to mirror its effort on every play. And that’s something WSU is learning it can accomplish.
“As a group, individually, whatever the case may be, they’ve got to perform at that level,” Breske said. “And they can. We’ve just got to grow up.”
They want to grow together, too, and Choate is doing his best to make sure that happens. That’s why he wants his players at his house when possible, talking and laughing, playing Xbox with his 12-year-old son, developing a bond that could help them on Saturdays.
“I care about you getting a degree,” Choate said. “I care about what’s going on in your life. I’ll bring you into my home and be there for you as a mentor or a counselor, whatever you need. That trust is developed in a number of ways, and that’s one of the ways we can do that.”