SALT LAKE CITY – Perhaps when Sophie Mata’afa was naming the fifth of her seven children, she sold him a little short by settling on merely Hercules.
Atlas Hercules Mata’afa, maybe? Or Hercules Beowulf Karna Mata’afa? Surely a combination of mythical badasses would better reflect the force her son would become on a football field – or how about skipping the gods and monsters altogether and just going with Grand Omnipotent Stomper?
Only a thought.
And it occurred on Saturday about the time the Cougars’ redoubtable defensive tackle blew up a Utah reverse and rag-dolled the Zach Moss for a 15-yard loss, when it became apparent Mata’afa was going to spend as much time in the Utes’ backfield as Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley. Combined.
Funny thing – this was Luke Falk’s homecoming, played out down the road from his Logan ‘hood and in front of upwards of 60 family members, friends and old coaches. And annexing the last Pac-12 record of note that he didn’t own – passing touchdowns – was a nice reward for their devotion.
But it was Hercules Mata’afa’s home wrecking.
His and the rest of the Cougar defense, which made its mission drilling the notion of sharing into the Utes – and did it so well that by game’s end the hosts were handing over the football with a “Here, all yours,” and then steeling themselves to make the tackle.
Seven takeaways. Even UCLA’s basketball players didn’t get that greedy at the Hangzhou mall.
Seven is usually two weeks’ worth for most teams – which adds up, as the Cougs are off next Saturday, resting up and then ratcheting up for the Apple Cup and another chance at a championship.
“We know,” acknowledged Falk, after trying the just-another-game shtick, “what’s on the line.”
But it was also very much on the line here at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which had its 50th straight sellout of 45,826, albeit with a goodly number of no-shows. That’s probably the by-product of Utah’s winless October that followed an undefeated September. WSU coach Mike Leach insisted the Utes remain “one of the most underrated teams” in the Pac-12 – not a very glamorous distinction given what’s happened to the conference lately. But they weren’t without moxie.
Of course, some of that was Wazzu’s doing.
This game easily could have been over in a quarter or so. Cougar safety Robert Taylor forced a fumble and made a pick on two of Utah’s first three possessions. Mata’afa stripped Huntley on the next one. The Cougar offense started successive possessions on the Utah 46, midfield, the Utah 19 and the Utah 27 – and by midway through the second quarter led only 13-10. For the longest time, it seemed like a conspiracy to get kicker Erik Powell another Pac-12 special teams player of the week award.
There have been puzzling stretches of that constipation all season, and by now it’s just who the Cougars are. But they’re also a defense of some renown – national leaders in tackles for loss, top 10 in turnovers and sacks.
And the most renowned is Mata’afa, who will be Pac-12 player of the week, finally – and possibly player of the year, too – or else the conference is going to hell in a Louis Vuitton bag.
A quick accounting: career highs in tackles (eight), sacks (three) and tackles for loss (five). But the math doesn’t fully reflect his demoralizing impact.
“Hercules Mata’afa,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, “is probably the best in the league.”
Which made it curious that the Utes tried to block him one-on-one so much early. That wasn’t the case in the second half, and it was largely because Mata’afa was fighting off a tag team that Daniel Ekaule was able to force the fumble that Falk turned into the clinching touchdown.
“If my job is to take on three guys,” Mata’afa said, “I’m going to do it.”
Attention to task has sort of become the Cougars’ thing – and look where it’s brought them.
The Cougars have shot some craps with their fate, yes, but the couple of times they seemed to write themselves off, they quickly wrote themselves back in – with a little help from their pals across the Cascades.
Yes, it’s been messy. Yes, the Pac-12 has played its way out of the College Football Playoff, and maybe out of a second spot in the Jan. 1 games.
But a win at Washington gets Wazzu to the Pac-12 title game and a rematch with USC. Period.
“The last three years we’ve been right on the cusp of the thing,” said Leach. “This is a good group and we’ve won a lot of games in the Pac-12 the last three years. We need to win another one.”
Another home wrecking. They certainly have the man for the job.