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Washington State mailbag: Where’s the defensive line at after three games and what happened to Oregon Chip?

PULLMAN – For the third time in three years, the Cougars will take an undefeated record into the fourth week of the season.

We have a shorter mailbag than usual this week, but dig in and make sure to submit your questions next week, either by sending to theol@spokesman.com, or using #CougQuestions on Twitter.

At the start of the season we all thought defensive line would be a strong point. What do you think now? Meeting expectations? Work in progress? Or, where’s Taylor Comfort and Logan Tago?

– Ray L.

This is a difficult thing to measure, especially so early on, but I’d say most assumed the Cougars would have more production from the defensive line against opponents like New Mexico State and Northern Colorado than that they’ve had so far. If you want to compare numbers year to year, after three games of the 2018 season WSU had 10 sacks and have six through three games of 2019, which puts them at ninth in the Pac-12.

On paper, I figured this defensive line would be stronger than last year’s and I believe it still has the potential to be, if we’re not only tracking sacks, tackles-for-loss and other common metrics used to grade a defensive front. But, the group clearly hasn’t applied the same pressure last year’s line did and it’s also played a hand in WSU’s inability to stop the run, which I’ll go more into depth about below.

“Work in progress” would be an apt way to describe the D-line after three games. The front is in a good place if, in two or three games, we can say it’s “meeting expectations” – only because so much was expected from it coming into the season.

Taylor Comfort was a surprise at nose tackle last season and surpassed just about everyone’s expectations for him, but I still have no reason to believe he’s a better player than Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, Lamonte McDougle or Dallas Hobbs. Where the dropoff has been noticeable, I believe, is the defensive end spot. Logan Tago was a spark plug on the edge last season and, while I wouldn’t have imagined myself saying this a year ago, he seems to be irreplaceable – at least as things appear now.

In addition, this time last year the Cougars had three sacks from the “Rush” linebacker position, including two from Dominick Silvels. They haven’t generated the same production from that spot these first three games, but would appear just as talented and deep on paper.

What, if anything, is the biggest surprise about the team to you this year?

– Katie L.

Good surprise? Bad surprise? Or both? Let’s get the bad out of the way first.

I thought this team would be better equipped to stop the run and figured if the Cougars had any major problems on defense, they’d come in the defensive secondary, where WSU is ushering in three new starters, at both safety positions and at cornerback.

So, I suppose it’s a good surprise then the Cougars rank No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing defense, at 162.7 yards per game, albeit they haven’t been thrown at much three games into the season.

Comparatively, WSU is just ninth in the conference in run defense, higher only than their next opponent, UCLA, and both Oregon State and Colorado. The Cougars are allowing teams to rush for 183.7 yards per game and of the six touchdowns they’ve given up, five of those have been on the ground. On the positive side, WSU ranks No. 1 in the league when it comes to fumble recoveries, which indicates while the Cougars aren’t tackling as well as they should, they’ve been somewhat opportunistic in taking the ball away.

Still, the Cougars will need to patch up their holes in their run defense, especially with an upcoming slate that matches them against UCLA and Josh Kelley, Utah and Zack Moss and Arizona State and Eno Benjamin.

With experience on their defensive line and in the linebacking corps, the Cougars projected to be a team that would fare just fine against the run. They aren’t big, but they’re quick, and making the routine tackle has never been an issue for a unit that’s usually been one of the most disciplined in the conference. The Cougars gave up just 141 rushing yards per game last season and have a long way to go to get back to that total in 2019.

I watched a little bit of the UCLA-Cincy game, UCLA offense looks nothing like Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams from both a hurry-up perspective and a play perspective. Is Chip wanting his offense to get to that point but can’t because of the current personnel, or is he going a completely different direction at UCLA?

– Nathan S.

It’s both fair and unfair to compare Kelly’s situation at Oregon to the one he’s still trying to sort out at UCLA. Kelly set a high standard for himself in Eugene and while it’s unreasonable to expect his Bruins teams will ever mirror the dominant Duck teams presided over a decade ago, it’s fair to ask him to bring UCLA back to relevance – at least to the point where fans in Westwood believe their Bruins have a legitimate chance of winning a Pac-12 title.

The offensive shortcomings at UCLA probably can’t be pinned to a single thing, but I’d imagine they’re more personnel-based than anything else. It’s easy to identify the discrepancy in talent if you followed Kelly’s run at Oregon. The easiest way to put it: Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Josh Kelley are not Marcus Mariota and LaMichael James, let alone Darron Thomas and Kenjon Barner.

The Kelly-era Ducks were extremely strong across the offensive line, too, and the blur offense wouldn’t have been so explosive without blockers that could operate at the coach’s preferred practice and game tempo.

Kelly spoke to Los Angeles reporters on Sunday and talked specifically about the offensive line, as it related to the general problems the Bruins have had getting points on the board.

“In a lot of situations, you’re still learning a lot of things, especially with the guys up front,” he said. “You don’t have a ton of tape to kind look at them and say, what are they good at, what aren’t they good at? Just because there’s a lot of brand new faces you’re kind of fitting in there.”

The Bruins have scored just 42 points in three games – 14 in each game – and clearly still seeking an identity that may not be determined until Kelly has a good feel for what his team does well. Later in the interview, the coach was asked if his current roster was suited to run what Kelly ran at Oregon.

“Oregon was a long time ago, so that’s two totally different operations,” Kelly said. “Again, another weird view that we’re going to run what we did at Oregon. That was 2012.”

A reported then suggested to the coach, “You had a lot of success there…”

“Yeah, but they had a lot of succcess with the single wing in the 1930’s but football evolves and things evolve,” Kelly said. “Maybe drop that take, to be honest with you. I never came in here and said we were going to run the offense we ran at Oregon, so I don’t know why that continues to come up as a question to be honest with you. When we were at Oregon, we had really good players.”

Would Kelly run the blur offense at UCLA if he had the right players? You’d sure think so.

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