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Analysis: Young Washington State defense learns on the job against tough Pac-12 offenses

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

EUGENE – In a tent outside Autzen Stadium, redshirt freshman Armani Marsh answered questions Saturday on behalf of a Washington State defense that again struggled to contain its opponent in a 37-35 loss to the Oregon Ducks.

“Just keep working hard and fully trusting each other, and keep working and try to get better at practice,” Marsh said as to how the defense would move forward. “That’s what we’re gonna do, and that’s all we can do, really. So, we’re just gonna keep fighting and playing for each other.”

Washington State (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) has a bye this weekend before playing at Cal on Nov. 9, needing two wins in its final four games to become bowl eligible for the fifth straight year.

Yet with just two more late-game stops, the Cougars would already have those necessary victories, and the season’s outlook would be quite different.

The Cougars have lost three conference games by a total of 10 points. In each game the Cougars coughed up their lead in the final minute, including Saturday when the Ducks booted a 26-yard field goal as time expired.

Those are the sorts of games WSU seemed to find a way to win last year, when it had much more experience on defense and clear leaders in safety Jalen Thompson, linebacker Peyton Pelluer and cornerback Darrien Molton.

All three of those left the program before this season, along with their combined 134 starts. Pelluer and Molton ran out of eligibility, while Thompson lost his final year due to an NCAA violation. Thompson started 39 games his three years with the Cougars and is now the backup free safety for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

That has left the Cougars, through eight games this year, with 174 total career starts on defense. At this juncture last year that figure was 239. The year before that it was 253.

Both of those years the Cougars finished among the top four in the Pac-12 in total defense. This year, though, they rank 10th.

As far as total career starts on defense, WSU has the fourth fewest in the conference this year, according to information in each team’s weekly game notes.

Stanford has 159, Colorado 151 and Washington the fewest with 150.

Last year, Washington gave up 306.2 yards per game on defense; this year that number has increased to 372.4. Colorado ranked fifth in the Pac-12 last year in total defense, but its notably younger unit is 12th this season and has surrendered 106 yards more per game than it did in 2018.

Yet the numbers don’t always support the idea that experience equals production. Arizona, for example, has the most career defensive starts in the Pac-12 with 289 but also one of its worst defenses, allowing the 11th-most yards and 12th-most points per game.

With the Cougars, though, the absence of a veteran core has been stark in those late-game situations. Players have noted multiple times they are not always doing their jobs and haven’t been in the proper position to make plays.

Though he is a junior, Jahad Woods has the most career starts on the defense with 31. Next are senior Marcus Strong and junior Skylar Thomas with 21. Sophomore rush linebacker Willie Taylor III is next with 19.

Strong is the only senior on defense to start all eight games this year. Last year, five Cougars seniors started all 13 games: Logan Tago, Taylor Comfort, Hunter Dale, Pelluer and Molton.

In no quarter last year was that experience more apparent than in the fourth, when WSU outscored its opponents a combined 151-46.

Twice in 2018, the Cougars blew a lead in the fourth quarter: when USC took a 39-36 lead on a touchdown with 8:03 left in the Cougars’ lone conference loss, and on a game-tying touchdown to Stanford with 1:25 remaining in a game the Cougars ultimately won 41-38.

This year? Their opponents have won the fourth frame 80-76, and the Cougars led in the fourth quarter in three of their four losses.

Perhaps the silver lining for WSU is that nearly every regular starter has eligibility remaining, and that eight games into next year its defense could have as many as 117 more starts under its collective belt.

“I feel like this was our best game that we’ve played, and (coach Mike) Leach said that, too,” Marsh said of the team’s performance against Oregon. “So we can just use this as a building block to continue to get better, just each week improving upon this game.”