PULLMAN – Willie Taylor III’s first season as a key fixture for Washington State’s defense was largely punctuated by two plays.
One of them spread like a web wildfire, picking up thousands of views when ESPN posted the 56-second clip online moments after Taylor’s blown pick-6 against California, in which the “Rush” linebacker intercepted Chase Garbers, raced down the sideline with the ball cradled in his arms, then spilled it a few footsteps shy of the goal line.
The other play? A routine tackle in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl that wasn’t actually credited to Taylor, hence why it probably didn’t receive appropriate recognition in the wake of WSU’s triumph in San Antonio, and why Taylor will be remembered as an unsung, underappreciated hero of the Cougars’ historic 11th win rather than a key player à la Gardner Minshew, Max Borghi or Peyton Pelluer.
“Purdy, Brock pass attempt failed” is how the official scorebook denoted the most significant play of Taylor’s college career, and in the postgame highlight reels it was buried somewhere beneath Minshew’s impromptu touchdown scramble, Hakeem Butler’s leaping one-handed grab and James Williams’ deft hurdle over an oncoming defender in what would be the running back’s Wazzu swan song.
It’s probably fitting, because the soft-spoken “Rush” linebacker from small-town Georgia always has been more about substance than visual appeal.
And there wasn’t a play more substantial than his in the 28-26 bowl win.
The Cyclones had just scored on quarterback Brock Purdy’s touchdown run, cutting the deficit to two points with 4:02 left. Needing a conversion, Purdy took the snap, looked off a few receivers, moved forward in the pocket and completed a jump-throw to running back David Montgomery near the sideline. WSU cornerback Marcus Strong whiffed, but Taylor provided reinforcement, hunting down Montgomery from the end zone to smother the running back just shy of the 4-yard line.
Minshew and the offense took over, completing a trio of first downs and running the game clock down to zero. Moments later, the Cougars were coated with balloons and confetti raining down from the Alamodome ceiling, joined by friends and family members celebrating their first bowl win in three seasons and first 11-win season in program history.
Taylor gets the occasional tip of the cap from Cougar fans recognizing the magnitude of his fourth-quarter stop.
“I’ve ran into some people who’ve said something like, ‘Good job in the Alamo Bowl. That was a good play, helluva play,’ ” Taylor said. “Game-saving play. That’s what people like to say.”
Nonchalantly, the redshirt sophomore chalks it up to doing what he’s asked to do – rather, what he’s supposed to do – as a run-stopping, quarterback-blitzing “Rush” linebacker.
“I just try to do my job,” he says. “And it’s all good.”
Humble as he is, the Cochran, Georgia, native concedes that making a play of such consequence was satisfying.
“Yeah it was, definitely,” Taylor said with a chuckle.
His teammates also deserve their due credit. It helped that Strong leveraged the play first, allowing Taylor to sweep in and pin Montgomery. If he hadn’t executed, safety Skyler Thomas could’ve made the play, though he was partially tied up with a Cylones receiver.
“I’d say our defense made a key stop,” outside linebackers coach Matt Brock said. “He was part of it, but the cornerback leveraged it outside-in and (Taylor) came inside-out like he’s taught. And did his job, within the confines of the call. So I think it’s a good play for him, but it’s a good play for our defense overall.”
The Cougars have more depth at the “Rush” position than they’ve had in years – even with part-time starter Dominick Silvels joining the inside linebackers this fall – but Taylor is expected to retain his role as a starter after recording 31 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss and four sacks in 2018. He was also a turnover machine vs. Cal, forcing a pair of fumbles and picking off Garbers in the Cougars’ 19-13 victory.
Coaches have already advertised Taylor as a faster, stronger, more intuitive version of the player who debuted in 2018.
“Just quicker. More precise, lower pads more consistently,” head coach Mike Leach said. “Consistency would be the quickest way to say it. I don’t have the numbers, but I do think he’s bigger and faster.”
Added Brock: “I think he had a good starting point last year. I think he’s got stronger in the weight room and did a good job. … That will hopefully give him the ability to counter his moves, not just speed all the time.”
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