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Washington State rewind: Defense crosses off top items on checklist in 41-10 win over Colorado

Washington State cornerback George Hicks III (18) caught one of his team’s three interceptions against Colorado on Saturday. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Washington State cornerback George Hicks III (18) caught one of his team’s three interceptions against Colorado on Saturday. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – The Pac-12’s top defense had its worst performance of the season. The league’s worst defense, at least in terms of conference games, was at its absolute best.

Oregon came into Saturday’s game at Washington having conceded 16 points in Pac-12 play. Washington State had allowed a whopping 143. The Ducks gave up 31 points in a narrow win over Washington, while the Cougars conceded just 10 in a blowout of Colorado.

WSU’s defense is starting to trend in the right direction ahead of a big North Division matchup in Eugene, while Oregon’s finally looked somewhat vulnerable. But more on Cougs vs. Ducks in the coming days.

We will, however, take another look at what the Cougars did to piece together a defensive effort that was long-awaited and much-needed in this edition of the Washington State rewind, along with Max Borghi’s production and Blake Mazza’s perfect season.

1. Main takeaway

The two most important items on the checklist for co-defensive coordinators Roc Bellantoni and Darcel McBath were 1) Limit the explosive plays and 2) End the turnover drought.

WSU surrended a few long runs to Colorado running back Alex Fontenot, who went over the 100-yard barrier, but none that were backbreaking or longer than 30 yards.

And the Cougars, after giving up a handful of chunk plays in the passing game against UCLA, Utah and Arizona State, ensured that Steven Montez’s longest throw of the game was a 28-yarder to K.D. Nixon. The Buffaloes didn’t have another pass play exceed 20 yards.

So, by and large, WSU made good on the first agenda item.

And the second item?

No more than eight minutes into the first quarter, strong safety Skyler Thomas jumped in front of a ball thrown by Montez, made the clean pick and started to race the other way. Later, cornerback George Hicks III intercepted the Colorado quarterback. In the fourth quarter, Marcus Strong picked off Montez’s backup, Blake Stenstrom.

The Cougars haven’t lost a game in which they’ve won the turnover battle, and with an offense scoring at such a high clip, the dividends of a few interceptions or forced fumbles should be straightforward.

Last week, Mike Leach pointed out that the Cougars needed to do a better job of swarming the ball – identifying it and running to it when it’s in the air or hunting it down when the opponent’s carrying it.

“Well, people who run to the ball have a funny way of getting turnovers,” Leach re-emphasized Saturday. “If you want a turnover, you better run to the ball. Because you don’t know if you’re going to get a turnover, but the more hands that are running to the ball, the better your chances are. So we did a good job of running to the ball and squeezed some of them out.”

2. Borghi bullies Buffs

Earlier in the week when he was asked about the improved efficiency of Max Borghi, Leach said of his sophomore running back: “He’s not a first-semester freshman anymore.”

Granted, Borghi never looked like one, not even when he was taking first-team repetitions last spring when he should’ve been attending the senior prom at Pomona High School in Colorado.

“I think he’s older, and we’ve done a lot of good things on offense,” Leach said on Wednesday. “We’ve done a pretty good job of stretching the field, too, so that might help.”

On Saturday, as one Colorado defender after another tried to clamp the running back’s legs, Borghi kept on moving, eluding some tacklers while bulling over others. The Arvada, Colorado, native, who was once committed to the Buffaloes but reneged when Colorado pulled its full-court press and stopped recruiting the hometown kid as diligently, rolled up 162 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns to bring his season total to nine.

James Williams made a run in 2018 at the school’s single-season scoring record, held by both Steve Broussard and Jerome Harrison (17 touchdowns), but came up just shy, scoring 16 times. But Borghi could get there, especially if the Cougars play in a bowl game, needing nine touchdowns in six games.

Leach was also asked last Wednesday if it was a difficult balance getting Borghi the reps he needs, while also being careful not to burn him out.

“No, not really,” he said. “You try to play with predominantly one back if you can. In some cases, we’ve had two quality ones and wanted to get them all out there. More in my career, I’ve had one primary back than I have had two.”

On Saturday, Borghi reached his career high in total touches, rushing it 12 times and catching it nine more. Some fans – and perhaps a few players – would be interested to see what the second-year running back could do with 30 or 35 touches.

“That was big getting the ball in his hands today,” receiver Brandon Arconado said. “… Max is a baller, you just give him the ball and he makes guys miss. I always ask him, ‘How do you make the first guy miss so easily?’ One of them, he bobbled it, and I for sure thought that guy tackled him. He just broke out of it and kept running. … Just give him the ball and let him play.”

His efficiency certainly warrants it. Through seven games, Borghi has rushed 70 times for 512 yards (7.3 yards per carry), and has caught 36 passes for 328 yards (9.1 yards per catch).

3. Mazza magic

The Cougars haven’t placed Blake Mazza in a pressure situation this year, but if one arises in the second half of the season, they’ll feel pretty good about trotting out their redshirt sophomore kicker.

Currently, the only other player in the Pac-12 who’s scored more points for his team is the kicker on the other side of the state, Washington’s Peyton Henry. Like Mazza, Henry is also the only other kicker in the conference who hasn’t missed a field goal on at least 10 attempts.

The Huskies have settled for a few more field goals than the Cougars, so Henry leads the Pac-12, at 15 of 15, and Mazza isn’t far behind at 11 of 11 after making two more kicks in the win over Colorado. Unsurprisingly, Mazza leads the conference in point-after attempts, and is a perfect 38 of 38 on those.

No, Mazza hasn’t nailed a game-winner this season, but he’s made a handful of kicks with a fairly high degree of difficulty. It never stopped raining during Saturday’s clash with the Buffs, and steady wind gusts blew the showers side to side. While his Colorado counterpart James Stefanou missed a pair of field goals – albeit both from long range – Mazza drove kicks of 20 and 36 yards through the uprights.

It’s the second time he’s been perfect in inclement weather. Mazza made two kicks in WSU’s wet 38-13 loss to Utah and converted his career-long 51-yarder in Salt Lake City. It was the second time this season he’s knocked in a kick from at least 50 yards after booting a 50-yarder in the season opener against New Mexico State.

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