PULLMAN – It isn’t that Mike Leach envisioned Washington State’s defense giving up 143 points in three games, ceding 1,715 total yards of offense through the first third of the Pac-12 schedule or going 10 full quarters without causing a turnover.
But perhaps the eighth-year coach sensed something wasn’t right, or a little fishy, a few months ago when the Cougars were exhausting themselves in Lewiston during the doldrums of preseason camp.
After the Cougars dropped their third straight game, 38-34 to Arizona State in Tempe, Leach was able to trace some of the problems his defense has stumbled upon to the tendencies and habits they established in the ever-important month of August.
Not positive ones, obviously.
Through three games, the Cougars are giving up more points per game (47.7) and yards per game (571.7) than anyone else in the Pac-12. They’re tied with Oregon State for fewest turnovers forced (1) and they’re allowing more passing yards (401 per game) than every team in the league with the exception of UCLA.
“I think we’ve been disjointed on defense and I don’t think we’ve totally grasped an identity,” Leach said. “And some of that has to do with I don’t think we did a great job of giving a clear message in camp. And then, of course, we have the coming and going with (defensive coordinator) Tracy (Claeys), so we’re trying to make up for lost time.”
Last week, Leach also cited the need for more clarity and decisiveness on the defensive side of the ball. WSU tried to alleviate some of that by making personnel changes – largely in the secondary – which Leach thought mostly were successful despite the Cougars giving up 38 points for a second straight game.
“I think we have a lot more to offer there, and I think we need to define guys’ positions there, but I think the upside’s huge,” Leach said. WSU experimented by moving Skyler Thomas to strong safety, elevating Pat Nunn to the starting nickel position and sliding Daniel Isom to cornerback.
Leach seemed to suggest the Cougars won’t rework the secondary ahead of Saturday’s Homecoming game against Colorado but still noted, “I think they could play better than they are by a significant margin.”
The coach also elaborated on WSU’s tendency to give up explosive plays, which repeatedly bit the Cougars against the Sun Devils. Jayden Daniels hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for touchdown passes that measured 40, 86 and 33 yards, respectively, while running back Eno Benjamin went untouched for a 32-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
“Pretty much a byproduct of playing with nine, instead of 11,” Leach said. “Nine guys would do real well, whether it’s a miscommunication or somebody out of position or whatever. Because most of these guys, you’ve got the initial guy or somebody over the top or whatever. Then some guy slips and the other guy’s out of position, so I think we’ve got to refine our skills, and I think we simplified a lot of things, which I think was beneficial. But we have to kind of get used to that, we have to keep doing it for awhile.”
Saturday’s game was WSU’s first employing inside linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni as interim defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath as co-interim defensive coordinator.
Leach believes the changes provided a more positive environment for WSU’s defensive players.
“Think it created a lot more energy,” he said. “I think the communication was better, I think we lined up better, and I thought we had a lot more energy on the sideline.”
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