PULLMAN – The big challenge for the Washington State defense this weekend against Arizona State will be to contain Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, two of the Pac-12’s better running backs.
Whatever. The Cougars already dealt with the two best, period.
Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey are two of the perhaps four running backs with legitimate chances to be selected in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft. They are also the only Pac-12 backs likely to be drafted this year, unless California’s Khalfani Muhammad or USC’s Justin Davis can sneak into the later rounds.
The two workhorses combined to rush for 173 yards against the Cougars, 75 of which came on a single, spectacular run by Freeman. Even the best running backs need space to run, and there has been precious little of that against the stingy WSU front seven.
Even just one year ago the Cougars were mediocre at defending the run, ranking seventh in the Pac-12 by allowing 193.6 rushing yards per game. Now they lead the conference in the category with just 104.5 yards allowed on the ground per contest. And second ranked ASU (121.6 rushing yards per game) is not particularly close.
The Cougars have managed this improvement despite losing a pair of second-team All-Conference defensive lineman in Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao. True, linebackers Dylan Hanser and Isaac Dotson have added athleticism to the front seven, and Frankie Luvu has provided some meanness the front seven did not have last year.
Peyton Pelluer has not let much through the middle of the field, and Hercules Mata’afa is starting to show why he was one of the Pac-12’s most-hyped players heading into this season.
But since none of those guys are putting together the kind of All-American season that could single-handedly explain WSU’s sudden staunchness against the run, the improvement must be credited to a team wide ability to play faster and more decisively.
“I love the effort and how they get those guys playing,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “They are very disruptive up front and do a lot of movement. They’re playing with a lot of passion and energy and you can tell they’ve been in the system.”
The Cougars have been swarming to the football in recent games, fully immersed in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s gaps-then-leverage keys to run defense. Grinch has got the defensive linemen in the right gaps, and the back seven keep leverage by forcing the ball carriers back to the middle of the defense.
It sounds simple, but it is effective.
“I think he’s done a fabulous job,” Graham said. “I’ve’ watched him, obviously I’m a defensive-minded coach and I think he’s been one of the best in the conference.”
The WSU defense will have bigger tests ahead. The Cougars have yet to face four of the top five rushing offenses in the conference (UO is No. 1). But this weekend they can show how far they have come against Ballage and Richard, who combined to rush for 189 yards in Pullman last year, with each of them adding a rushing touchdown.
“Both those guys have good size and speed,” Grinch said. “I thought they out-physicaled us last year, as an entire offense. They got chunk plays on the ground. I don’t think we tackled extremely well when it comes to those two backs, and credit goes to them. It’s not going to automatically flip this year that we’re going to be able to tackle them better, so we need to get as many hats to them as we can.”