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Defense might be Cougs’ strength

Washington State’s defense bottled up quarterback Aaron Cantu and the Southern Utah offense in Saturday’s game at Martin Stadium. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Washington State’s defense bottled up quarterback Aaron Cantu and the Southern Utah offense in Saturday’s game at Martin Stadium. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – Caveats abound when assessing any number of statistical measures this early in the season, so evaluating Washington State through that lens should be done without reaching broad conclusions.

But the early returns are hard to ignore. Especially for the Cougars’ defense.

Through three games, WSU leads the nation in pass defense at 99.7 yards per game. The Cougars also rank fourth in pass efficiency defense, 11th in total defense, and 23rd in scoring defense. And they’re allowing opponents to convert only 26.8 percent of their third-down chances, a number that ranks 10th in the country.

Now, the caveats: The Cougars’ first three opponents – Auburn, USC and Southern Utah – are run-oriented teams that aren’t going to throw the ball a heck of a lot. But there’s no questioning the fact that WSU’s defense has been instrumental in each of its two victories, particularly last week at USC when the Trojans didn’t score in the second half.

Southern Utah didn’t score in Saturday’s second half, either. And the Trojans turned around two days ago and scored 35 points at home against Boston College while racking up 521 yards of total offense. WSU held them to 193.

So while there are opponent-specific reasons why the Cougars have posted some of the nation’s best defensive numbers, it has also become clear – even this early – that WSU’s defense might be the strength of its team.

Even as WSU’s offense broke out for five touchdowns and two field goals against SUU, the defense got a little jealous after allowing the Thunderbirds to move the ball a bit.

“We kind of just were letting the offense do a lot of the work,” said senior safety Deone Bucannon. “We went into the locker room and said, ‘This can’t just be the offense’s day. We’ve got to go out there and show everyone that we’re a team and we can work as a team.’ ”

They shouldn’t have any problem working as a team this week against Idaho, which will enter Martin Stadium on Saturday with an 0-3 record and as a heavy underdog. The Vandals have been outscored 127-51 through three games, though they gave Northern Illinois a surprisingly competitive showing before losing 45-35.

Idaho has lost nine consecutive games dating to last season, and has lost 24 of 27 since the beginning of the 2011 season.

In other words: The biggest challenge for WSU this week against the Vandals will be to not overlook them. But that’s not something the Cougars did last week against Southern Utah, even on the heels of its thrilling 10-7 upset of USC.

Sophomore receiver Gabe Marks said after Saturday’s game that “(coach Mike) Leach is already thinking of stuff we did bad that we need to fix for tomorrow at practice. That’s his job. We’re going to enjoy it tonight, and then tomorrow we’re going to get back to work.

“We don’t talk about letdowns and stuff like that.”

Leach nonchalantly rattled off a list of positive elements that made WSU’s win over SUU impressive, but the ultimate message remains the same.

“We’ve just got to steadily improve and get a week better,” he said.

So far, they have.