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John Blanchette: In era of eye-popping offenses, Washington State defense as good as they need to be

BOULDER, Colo. – There’s something to be said for slogans and sobriquets, and also for sober assessments.

And truth be told, that “Speed D” thing at Washington State never much captured the imagination at large. Nicknames require more siccum to be marketed effectively to an easily distracted public, as evidenced in our recent congressional kerfuffle.

But then, it’s not all about ferocity and dazzle. Sometimes it can just be a simple truth, and the simple truth about the Cougars’ defense of 2018 is that it’s as good as it needs to be.

As good as it needs to be.

Nope, it’s no billboard or bumper sticker. But, really, isn’t anything beyond addressing a need just showing off?

Which was almost the case Saturday as the 10th-ranked Cougars waxed Colorado 31-7 at Folsom Field for their sixth consecutive victory on this toll road to an unexpected destiny. That’s right, the Wazzu defense came within one communications breakdown of a shutout, which was far more “D” than was required to bulldoze the Buffs.

As a result, the Cougs didn’t even seem to feel bad – or mad – about missing out.

“Nah, we always talk that adversity is going to hit and that was the adversity for us,” defensive end Logan Tago said.

The hiccup in question – let’s get the blemish out of the way early – came on Colorado’s second possession, running back Travon McMillian coming upon a break in the Cougars’ line that seemed to have been cleared out by Ralphie the buffalo himself. Sixty-four yards later, Marcus Strong finally dragged him down at the WSU 3, but McMillian got the last of it on the next play for a 7-0 CU lead.

What happened?

“Just a miscommunication,” Tago insisted. “We told Peyton (Pelluer, the defensive captain) we couldn’t hear his calls and all that, so we got that right.”

So it was really loud out there?

“No,” Tago said.

Hmm. Miscommunication must be going around.

In any event, there was no more of it. In fact, the defense got the message of the day loud and clear – that it was going to have to sit on the Buffs until Gardner Minshew and the offense got their act together, which happened in fits and starts throughout the game’s duration.

No last-drive, last-minute flourishes were needed. This one was over with a quarter still to play.

But seeing as the Cougars controlled the ball for nearly 42 minutes and ran 94 plays to CU’s 54 and turned it over not even once, there was no reason the score shouldn’t have been 131-7.

Except they didn’t have to be that good.

“The defense was getting them off the field so fast,” Minshew marveled. “Hats off to them for getting us the ball and handing us a lot of possessions.”

In the first half, this took the form of Colorado going 0 of 5 on third down – in part because the Buffs always needed 7 yards or more. After intermission, the Cougsforced three Colorado turnovers – WSU’s highest takeaway count of the season.

Even getting back Pac-12 receptions leader Laviska Shenault Jr. after three games lost to injury couldn’t save the Buffs. He did flag down 10 more passes – but then dropped a pair back-to-back beyond midfield with the game still in doubt, and fumbled away another. Maybe his turf toe morphed into turf hand.

Meanwhile, the Cougs survived their own anomaly: Pelluer, in his record-tying 51st game, managed not a single tackle – a first since his freshman year. But he had both of Wazzu’s fumble recoveries.

No co-dependency among these Cougs, then. Lots of teammates to clean up in their leader’s place.

And no need to do too much. If they’ve had their ordinary moments – USC, Stanford, Oregon State – they’ve been a cut above at the right times against Utah, Oregon, Cal and now the Buffs.

“We kept them off-balance,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “This was one of the better games our defensive line has played. I thought they affected the quarterback – they didn’t all result in sacks, but they affected him and moved him and made it difficult. And we did get them in a number of third and longs as a result of that and that was pretty critical.”

To be honest, the Buffs are pretty critical – that is to say, in critical condition. They’re 5-5 after a 5-0 start to the season and only Minshew’s mustache is a hotter item than the seat under Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, even though injuries have robbed them of nine potential starters.

And while Leach continues his tub-thumping for the woebegone Pac-12 – “In this conference, we don’t have any below-average opponents” – five straight losses make a team exactly that.

That’s hardly the Cougs’ problem. They have to answer only to themselves – and their own needs.