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Vince Grippi’s three takes: Washington State’s offense does just enough to back up high-flying defensive performance

If you questioned whether Washington State could win a road game when the offense is sputtering, your query was answered in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

But only if the caveat is the defense, which goes by #SpeedD, forces seven turnovers.

Those extra chances allowed the Cougars to score 23 points, which, with a final score of 33-25, seems very important.

The problem was there were more points available and the WSU offense didn’t take advantage.

On a night Luke Falk grabbed the only Pac-12 quarterback mark he didn’t have, career touchdown passes, the offense once again was not up to Mike Leach’s expectations – or standards.

Too many mental mistakes, too many physical mistakes, too many wasted chances.

In the first quarter Washington State began at the Utah 46 (after a fumble), WSU 49 (interception) and the Utah 19 (another fumble). They scored 13 points.

In the second half, Falk and company were given the ball at the Utah 12 following a Hunter Dale interception.

The result? An incomplete pass. A sack. A 4-yard completion. And another Erik Powell field goal, one of four he had – along with a miss.

The previous time the defense gave the offense the ball inside the Utah red zone, Falk came through with his 118th career touchdown pass, an 8-yard toss to Isaiah Johnson-Mack. It seemed important to Falk, who threw a fist pump and then head-butted tackle Cole Madison.

Still, the points Washington State left off the scoreboard allowed the Utes, and their ineffective offense, to have hope. Even though they had just 204 yards of total offense in the first three quarters.

Cougs set themselves up for massive Apple Cup

Maybe the Cougars are tired. They have played 11 consecutive weeks. They have won nine times, but need one more to play in the Pac-12 championship game against USC.

That will require winning in two weeks – the Cougs have their bye this week – in the Apple Cup.

That won’t be easy, especially with the way the offense has sputtered on the road. And Washington has one of the conference’s better defenses.

Mata’afa has player of the year performance

Hercules Mata’afa deserves to be named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. Whether he will is still up to debate.

But the guess is Kyle Whittingham would vote for him.

The Utah coach is a defensive aficionado, a coach who appreciates excellent defensive line play, especially from Polynesian players. He’s coached Star Lotulelei, Tenny Palepoi, Sealver Siliga and numerous other defensive linemen who have shined in the NFL.

Mata’afa checks both those boxes, except the final one, which is coming in a year or two.

The redshirt junior defensive lineman was basically unblockable, especially early Saturday night. Again.

Coming from all over the defensive line, and standing up once in a while, Mata’afa, from Lahaina, Hawaii, had eight solo tackles against the Utes (5-5, 2-5). That total included three sacks, five tackles for loss and one strip sack of Tyler Huntley, a fumble that he recovered himself.

And that all came as the Utah offensive line focused on his presence.

His performance more than likely will move Mata’afa into the top five in NCAA sacks this season, as he’s averaging one per game.

He came into the game seventh nationally in tackles for loss and should move up into the top two or three in that category.

But the subject here was Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

His standing in the conference is unmatched. He should lead in sacks, tackles for loss – he did coming in – and, at 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, all-around pound-for-pound excellence.

Harrison Phillips of Stanford and USC’s Rasheem Green, the best defensive linemen on their respective teams, may be his biggest competitors.

But this an award Mata’afa has earned.