PULLMAN – There are few key moments in a 45-10 blowout, but the lingering image from last year’s Apple Cup is that of Washington linebacker Azeem Victor standing above an injured Gabe Marks served to encapsulate the manner in which the Washington defense beat up the Washington State offense in 2015.
That moment only lasted a split-second before fellow linebacker Keishawn Bierria began hurriedly motioning for trainers to come to Marks’ aid. But it lasted long enough to for the point to come across: One of WSU’s toughest players, who had already come back onto the field after suffering minor injuries following big hits throughout the game, had been beaten.
As much Heisman love as quarterback Jake Browning receives, and as many accolades as speedy wide receiver John Ross rightfully receives, Washington’s nasty defense, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring (17.9), is the team’s heartbeat and the reason the Huskies are in the playoff hunt in Chris Petersen’s third season.
“They have big, physical guys,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said. “Have for the last several years and I think that’s really kind of the strength of their team.”
That is thanks in part to a surplus of defensive talent left over by former coach Steve Sarkisian. Petersen arrived at UW with a first round NFL draft pick at every level of the defense: nose tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters.
The Huskies have continued to stockpile talent, particularly in the secondary. That is largely thanks to defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, who was rewarded with a co-defensive coordinator title last December for his role in making Washington’s secondary the best unit on a defense with few weaknesses.
Lake is an alumnus of North Central High in Spokane and played at Eastern Washington, which is where his coaching career began.
Thanks to Lake’s development, three of UW’s starting defensive backs are likely to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft. The fourth starter, true freshman Taylor Rapp, sure seems to be trending toward an NFL career.
And thanks to his recruiting, the Huskies have stockpiled four four-star defensive backs in the last two signing classes – not including Rapp, who Lake says is already the secondary’s best tackler.
The Huskies have intercepted 13 passes and allowed just 12 aerial touchdowns, and rank second in the conference giving up 195.8 passing yards per game.
Having so much ability in the secondary frees up the rest of the Huskies defense. With all-conference safety Budda Baker patrolling the back end, the linebackers and defensive linemen can make riskier plays. Sidney Jones – a likely first-round NFL draft pick – and Kevin King at cornerback allow the Huskies to confidently play man defense most of the time.
“We definitely have a lot of respect for everybody on their back end,” WSU outside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “Since we’re probably going to throw it every now and again, they’ll all be good matchups.”
And what puts UW’s defense over the top is that it also has an abundance of riches on the defensive line. WSU has the conference’s biggest offensive line, and on Friday it will go up against the biggest defensive line, which starts Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea, all of whom are at least 320 pounds.
But the Cougars are far from a finesse team. Their 8-1 stretch was spurred by a renewed commitment to physicality and toughness. WSU’s offense is newly dangerous on the ground – the running backs have rushed for more than 100 yards seven times this season.
That left guard Cody O’Connell is an Outland Trophy finalist suggests the offensive line can play with UW’s brutes up front, and Marks did not return to school with the intention of letting Jones and the UW defense knock him around again.
Both UW (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) and WSU (8-3, 7-1) have won a lot of games by being tougher than their opponents. The Huskies defense will try to get the Cougars to wilt with hard hits and some showmanship.
We will see if this year the Cougars can stand tall and prove that they are the toughest team in the north.
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