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Cougars reworked defense after last year’s UCLA loss

PULLMAN – The numbers were shocking.

UCLA ran the ball 56 times. The Bruins gained 437 yards on the ground. Johnathan Franklin rushed for 216 yards, Derrick Coleman 185 on just 15 carries.

If someone had drawn a postgame cartoon, it would have featured the Washington State defense rolled flat on the Rose Bowl turf, two tire tracks highly visible.

It was also the turning point for the Cougars’ defense.

“We knew we had to get more size at the linebacker position,” WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball said this week of what the Cougars learned from that debacle last season, “because our run defense was horrible – as that game showed.”

From that early October 42-28 defeat in Pasadena until the Apple Cup, no one would rush for more than 251 yards on the Cougars again, not Oregon, not Stanford, not Oregon State.

“You go from that game, and look at the (final) half of the season and we really, really improved our run defense,” Ball said.

Changes had to be made.

Freshman Deone Bucannon, then 6-foot-1, 186 pounds, moved into the strong safety spot.

Freshman C.J. Mizell (6-2, 225) took over at middle linebacker.

And freshman Sekope Kaufusi (6-3, 233) was moved from defensive end to linebacker.

The next week against Oregon, which came into the game averaging 331 yards rushing, WSU gave up just 251 yards on the ground.

Mizell had a team-high 12 tackles, Bucannon five, Kaufusi four.

They finished the season with 57, 84 and 22, respectively.

“They just made us so much more physical,” Ball said.

But they also mainly watched against UCLA.

“I was just thinking in my head I can come down and fill those holes and stay in my gap,” Kaufusi said. “That’s all you’ve got to do against them. Do your job.”

Mizell, also standing on the sidelines watching the defense get rocked, just wanted his chance.

“That was exactly what was going through my mind,” he said. “It was my first week of just going hard in the film room and going hard every rep, and I wanted to lay it out on the field that weekend.

“And I didn’t get to. So I’ve got a lot still built up in me from last year.”

But Mizell understands he can’t be too amped up this Saturday, when the Cougars’ defense has its chance to show how much it’s improved since last October.

Playing out of control will hurt against UCLA’s option-based Pistol offense more than it will help.

“The biggest challenge is gap control,” said Kaufusi, who has put on an inch in height and a pound in weight since last season and starts on the strong side. “In our previous games this year, we had to shed blocks and just try to make plays. This team, they’re really physical. You better fill your gap or they’ll gash you for yards.”

The two main weapons are again the 5-10, 193-pound Franklin (79.8 yards per game rushing) and the 5-11, 240-pound Coleman (60.6).

With junior quarterback Richard Brehaut reading the defense and deciding when to give the tailback the ball, the Bruins’ Pistol has averaged 199.4 yards a game on the ground, second in the Pac-12.

“They are both very good backs,” Mizell said. “One of them very elusive, the other more of a pounding back. We’ve just got to read our keys and follow our fits and make the tackle.”

Though WSU’s defense is bigger, faster and more physical than it was last season (and giving up just 127.2 yards per game rushing), it has to be disciplined against the Bruins.

“Assignment first this week, that’s what we’re mainly focused on,” Kaufusi said.

And showing how much they’ve improved.

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