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Wide receiver Gabe Marks grateful for improved WSU defense

Stanford 's Christian McCaffrey is stopped by a group of Washington State defenders during the first half of last Saturday’s game at Stanford. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
Stanford 's Christian McCaffrey is stopped by a group of Washington State defenders during the first half of last Saturday’s game at Stanford. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Gabe Marks started at wide receiver the first game of his freshman season, back in 2012 at BYU when both he and Mike Leach were brand new to Washington State.

Since then, he’s been a part of great seasons, mediocre seasons and a year or two that were downright bad. In that time, he learned to appreciate the value of a good defense.

“I think we feed off the defense more than they realize,” Marks said. “When they go out there and go three-and-out, it makes the game so much easier.”

Marks is having a grand time these days with the WSU defense arguably leading the charge for the surging Cougars. Luke Falk was intercepted on the first drive against Stanford? No matter, the defense held and the Cougars only lost 11 yards of field position.

The offense still struggled to find its rhythm on the next drive. Well, six plays later it got the ball back by way of a punt.

Mostly, Marks is happy knowing that the offense no longer needs to play perfectly to have a chance to win. After all, he has seen WSU offenses that could go almost without flaw and still lose (the record–setting 2014 60-59 home loss to California, for example).

“It’s not healthy to play football like that. It’s really scary to play football like that, actually, especially when you’re playing receiver. I’ve been on some teams where (our opponents) know the defense is not going to stop them,” Marks said. “I’m a big fan of balance. At this point in my career I realize what it can do for you, and I like it.”

Marks, like most people, gives credit for the defense’s improvement to second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. The receiver says it is “inevitable” that Grinch will be a successful head coach in the near future, and that even though he spends most of practice on a different field than Grinch and the starting defense, he and the offense can feel the energy emanating from the other side of the ball.

“He doesn’t even coach me, I barely see him at practice because they’re doing their own thing, but I want to make plays for him, you know what I mean,” Marks said.

Grinch built the defense in 2015, peaking in the Sun Bowl victory over Miami when the Cougars surrendered just 14 points to Miami, forcing three fumbles (recovering one) and intercepting two passes.

That Miami team, by the way, is ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 right now thanks in large part to quarterback Brad Kaaya, who threw one of the interceptions, was sacked four times by the Cougars and is expected to be an early selection this spring in the NFL draft.

The reality is, WSU’s offense has been good enough for a while. In 2014, the Cougars averaged 31.8 points per game. That’s not the 43.8 they’re currently averaging, which ranks No. 9 nationally, but it should have been enough to get them to a bowl game. The defense that year gave up 38.6 points per game though, a figure that ranked No. 117 nationally and led to coordinator Mike Breske’s firing.

Where Grinch’s impact has been most apparent is in the turnover battle. In 2014, the Cougars had a turnover margin of –1.42 per game, better only than Eastern Michigan and Georgia State. Currently, the turnover margin is 1.20, trailing only seven other teams.

And it is reasonable to expect those numbers to rise, too. The Cougars defense didn’t begin the 2016 season with the same fervor and success that it showed at the end of 2015. WSU got torched in game one by Eastern Washington and wide receiver Cooper Kupp.

It acquitted itself better against Boise State, thanks in large part to safety Shalom Luani’s return from suspension, and has been improving ever since.

“We were making conscious decisions to do selfish things like not communicating well, or if we’re running a blitz not running it in the gap we’re supposed to, just things like that,” said cornerback Darrien Molton. “It was the whole defense as a unit, and we decided to just get together more and play as a team.”

And the Cougars continue to improve. WSU accrued just two sacks during its first three games and the pass rush was a real concern. But in games against Pac-12 opponents Oregon and Stanford, the Cougars racked up six sacks and showed that while the pass rush is not yet stifling, it is no longer suspect.

At least some credit for the improved pass rush belongs to defensive end Garrett McBroom. While McBroom does not have a sack yet, he entered the starting lineup for Pac-12 play and has been able to create disruption on the line of scrimmage, making things easier for WSU’s pass rushers.

Furthermore, him starting allows the Cougars to bring in Daniel Ekuale off the bench, keeping up more pressure on the offensive line with fresher players, and putting Ekuale in the best position to be successful.

Though McBroom is a junior, he is a junior college transfer and so is still inexperienced at this level of college football.

“He’s been violent,” Grinch said. “The violence comes with knowing where you need to be and when you need to be there. He’s thinking less and the next step is to get more production, but he’s certainly helped us up front with disruption.”

If the defensive can continue to disrupt opposing teams, Marks and the WSU offense will be much obliged.

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