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Washington State defense looks to crank it up another notch as Cougars seek 7-0 start to season

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 13, 2017, 12:44 p.m.

 (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
(Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

BERKELEY, Calif. – Dylan Hanser means no disrespect to the rowdy home crowd Washington State gets at Martin Stadium, but the senior linebacker has reason to believe it’s actually easier to play defense when the Cougars are on the road.

Just hear him out.

“As far as the defense goes, it’s quieter,” Hanser said. “As much as I love how loud Martin Stadium gets, it’s nice just to not be screaming the checks and the audibles and stuff on defense. It’s nice to have the crowd calmed down a bit and just be able to move and communicate better as a defense.”

The Cougars won’t find a stadium in the Pac-12 louder than the one they just visited. But every time Oregon took the field on offense, the home crowd at Autzen Stadium grew quiet in an instant. WSU’s defense fed off the silence and muted the nation’s top-scoring offense in a 33-10 blowout in Eugene.

The “Speed D” expects to get the silent treatment again this week. The eighth-ranked Cougars (6-0, 3-0) will play a second consecutive game on the road when they take on the California Golden Bears (3-3, 0-3) tonight at 7:30 at Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.

Smoke permitting, WSU will have a chance to run its win streak to seven games, which would tie last year’s midseason run but more notably match the best start in program history. The Cougars opened 7-0 in 1997 and again in 2001.

A layer of smoke has descended on the Bay Area in recent days as a result of wildfires in Northern California’s wine country. The Cougars and Golden Bears would presumably move forward with Friday’s game as long as the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Berkeley doesn’t exceed 200.

The AQI hovered 150-160 on Thursday, so barring any major windstorms that would potentially blow more smoke into the region, WSU and Cal will play in a Friday night duel between Pac-12 North foes that are going in opposite directions.

WSU owns a top-15 defense, a top-20 offense and some iffy punting might be the Cougars’ only major deficiency at the moment. If they’re being picky, the Cougars could shore up a few things on the offensive line – opposing defenders are still finding their way to Luke Falk far too frequently – and the WSU receivers probably wish they could have a few inexcusable drops back.

“The whole team, I think we have a long ways to go as far as improvement,” coach Mike Leach said. “I think we’ve improved some on the O-line, I do think we need to elevate our mentality, kind of a tougher more physical mentality. Because we’re capable of more than we’re accomplishing, but I’d say that about nearly every position.”

And inside receivers coach Dave Nichol says one day his players may lament those drops: “We’ll play some games where those are critical.”

Eventually, they will. Not on Friday, necessarily.

The Justin Wilcox era got off to a scorching start and the Golden Bears won their first three games – two of them against Power Five opponents – before meeting the harsh reality of Pac-12 Conference play.

Cal wilted in the latter stages of games against then-top 10 USC and Oregon and hardly showed up to play against Washington, falling into a 24-0 hole before finally registering a touchdown. The Bears were still thumped, 38-7.

Cal’s three-game slide hasn’t exactly been unpredictable, though. The Cougars will be the third team the Bears have faced with a top-10 ranking coming into the matchup. Oregon, which handed Cal it’s other loss, was ranked inside the Top 25 earlier this year.

Of WSU, Wilcox said: “Great opponent and we’re going to have to be on our game in every phase.”

Cal’s offense hasn’t had a great amount of success throwing the ball, but it doesn’t mean the Golden Bears will stop. Sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers got the starting job near the end of fall camp and has already attempted 222 passes – not too far off the 262 attempts by WSU signal-caller Luke Falk. Only 124 of Bowers’ throws have been completed, though, and the first-year starter has recorded nine touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

WSU’s defensive backs will still want to be on guard.

“It’s going to be exciting to go against them because they like to throw the ball,” Cougars safety Robert Taylor said. “We go against more pass plays than anybody I think in the nation, but that just helps us gain confidence to perfect our craft each and every day.”