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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougars look to bounce back against Boise State

Washington State expects to have safety Shalom Luani back against Boise State. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Alex Grinch said last week’s game against Eastern Washington was the Washington State defensive backfield’s “worst day since I’ve been here.”

That setback against a powerful passing offense means Saturday’s game against the high-scoring Boise State Broncos will be a stress test for a defense that must have better days ahead for the Cougars to achieve any kind of success this season.

The Broncos are led by a first-team All-Mountain-West quarterback in sophomore slinger Brett Rypien, who was once seen chucking footballs all over the Greater Spokane League at Shadle Park.

He has talented playmakers to get the ball to – wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck and running back Jeremy McNichols combined for more than 3,200 yards from scrimmage and 34 touchdowns in 2015.

And the Broncos run an offense meant to confuse the defense through pre-snap movement and misdirection. This could be particularly challenging for the WSU defense considering many of its issues in Week 1 stemmed from communication errors.

On the positive side, the Cougars will likely have all-conference safety Shalom Luani on that blue field this week. Luani has participated in every practice since the EWU game, which he missed along with some practices, likely stemming from his role in a fight for which the Pullman police plan to recommend assault charges.

Luani’s presence should shore up the secondary’s play in a few ways – not only is he the best player back there, but he allows Robert Taylor to move back to his preferred position of cornerback. Taylor cannot play until the second half because of his targeting ejection last week.

The Cougars will need to see improved play from all corners of the defense, however, not just the cornerbacks. Inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson was disappointed with his unit’s play in pass coverage last week, and the linebackers are going to have to stay particularly sharp to stay on top of all of the Broncos’ moving parts.

“We weren’t a big factor in the coverage, and that’s a bad thing,” Wilson said. “We could have made a few more plays.”

On pass plays, the linebackers are focused on check-down passes, and poor tackling on short passes led to some big gains in WSU’s first game. Sperbeck and McNichols are obviously tough to bring down, so the Cougars linebackers will need to improve their tackling immensely.

The defensive line will have to put pressure on Rypien, something it struggled to do against EWU’s quick-passing game. Rypien will sit in the pocket longer, but this week WSU’s defensive linemen will also have to contend with the running game.

Like all of WSU’s defensive units, it must show a better version of itself this week or the Cougars will have a hard time winning on Saturday.

“First-game jitters, whatever you call it,” said defensive line coach Joe Salave’a. “To me, it’s all about production. If you’re not impacting the pocket, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”

There are definitely reasons to think the WSU defense can make the improvements it needs to in order to be a strength going forward, as it was at the end of last season. Grinch and the coaches have a better sense of which players thrive in game situations and which ones just look good in practice.

Do not be surprised to see cornerback Marcellus Pippins get more snaps this week after making an end zone interception last week. Freshman linebacker Derek Moore got some snaps against the Eagles and at worst he can provide some valuable rest for WSU’s starters.

And having Luani back won’t hurt, either.