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Analysis: Convincing statement just what Washington State defense needs in 41-10 win against Colorado

Washington State  linebacker Jahad Woods  sacks Colorado  quarterback Steven Montez  during the second half Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Nonstop rain, the familiar trappings of Martin Stadium and the sight of a Colorado quarterback wearing No. 12 may have been just the blend of things Washington State’s defense needed to turn the corner, or at least take an initial step toward doing so, while snapping a three-game losing streak Saturday against the Buffaloes.

The Cougars have just one home game between Sept. 21 and Nov. 16 – a stretch of 56 days – and they made sure 28,514 brave fans were treated to a different experience than the one they got here four weeks ago against UCLA, or watching from home when WSU frittered away games at Utah and Arizona State.

The aptitude and effort the defense showed in a 41-10 win over Colorado was a treat for just about everyone involved.

It certainly was for coach Mike Leach, who had to deal with a defensive coordinator’s resignation during the bye week – a midseason dilemma he wasn’t counting on when fall camp got underway more than two months ago.

It also was for Anthony Gordon, Max Borghi and the offense, who say they haven’t felt a burden with the defense struggling, but have faced a massive undertaking nonetheless with the Cougars giving up 143 points in three outings.

And of course for the defensive players themselves, who’ve been buried by their Pac-12 opponents, challenged by their coaches and torched by the media while trying to clean up their act and still something of the 2019 season.

“Last week was such a disappointment because we worked extremely hard,” WSU linebacker Jahad Woods said. “We worked our butt off and it’s definitely reassuring, it’s definitely satisfying that we got the win tonight.”

And it all looked pretty good from the lenses of the HBO cameras on site, capturing footage for an hourlong documentary segment on the Cougars that will run Wednesday.

Against an offense, and a quarterback, who’ve had some of their worst outings against WSU the past three years, the Cougars managed to force three turnovers – after they went 10 full quarters without one – and held the Buffaloes to 10 points on six trips into WSU territory, and three inside the red zone.

If the Cougars had their pick of the litter, Steven Montez may have been the first Pac-12 quarterback they’d chosen to see Saturday night. Colorado’s senior has had varying degrees of success in three years as the Buffaloes’ starter, but he’s never pieced it together against the Cougars.

Far from it, actually.

Montez finished 16 of 30 for 129 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions before coming out for good in the fourth quarter. He’ll surely never care to revisit his career stat line against WSU. In three starts against the Cougars, all losses, the Buffaloes scored 17 points and Montez combined to go 40 of 78 for 349 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

It’s now been seven years – five games during that stretch – since the Buffaloes last threw a touchdown pass against the Cougars.

WSU’s defensive secondary, which had been heavily scrutinized after giving up 1,204 passing yards and 10 touchdowns in the losses to UCLA, Utah and ASU, rebounded to have arguably its best outing of the year. Montez struggled, but it was partially because of the pressure the Cougars’ corners and safeties applied on CU’s receivers – a group including preseason All-American candidate Laviska Shenault Jr.

“They’ve got a chip on their shoulder, for real,” Woods said of the WSU defensive backs. “A lot of people are criticizing them, but everybody has their back and they know they’re loved in the locker room and that’s all that matters.”

The defense was balanced out by the offense and the special teams as Gordon threw four touchdowns on 35-of-51 passing for 369 yards, Borghi accounted for 162 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, Brandon Arconado caught five passes for 109 yards and a touchdown, and Blake Mazza kicked his 10th and 11th field goals to stay perfect on the year.

“I thought for the most part, we played well,” Leach said. “We played hard the entire game, not mistake-free, but we played hard and had energy on all sides of the ball, and I thought it was complete with 11 people with good energy. I think there’s some things we need to polish up, but we did play well and we finished the first half, and I think our defense finished the second half.”

In many ways, the game resembled WSU’s rain-drenched game against Colorado at Martin Stadium two years ago. The Buffaloes had even less success in that one, losing 28-0.

Hard rain fell throughout the game, but again, it only seemed to hinder the visiting team.

The Buffaloes missed a field goal on their opening drive, and WSU capitalized with an eight-play, 69-yard drive capped by Gordon’s short touchdown throw to Borghi.

When Skyler Thomas jumped a route on the next Colorado possession to pick off Montez, Gordon and the offense took over with good field position and scored a few plays later when Gordon whipped a 22-yard touchdown to Patmon.

Borghi broke free on a 47-yard touchdown later on in the first quarter, slipping out of two or three tackles to get loose before fighting off one more at the goal line to put the Cougars up 21-3.

The Buffaloes never showed the firepower, or the will power, to claw back into the game.

The Cougars suddenly feel like they have a lot of both after a convincing Pac-12 win.

“I think last week was a turning point, definitely, and I think this week is even more,” WSU linebacker Willie Taylor III said. “I think we can feed off of this, I mean we had three takeaways. You see that and we just want to go into next week with that same mindset. Get the ball away, affect the quarterback and keep doing what we’re doing.”