PULLMAN – In the wake of losing the highest-scoring football game in Pac-12 history, the Washington State defense is looking to bounce back against a Utah team that might be without two of its star playmakers on Saturday.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss were both banged up in the Utes’ loss last Friday to the USC Trojans, and it is unclear whether they will face a Cougars defense that gave up touchdowns on six of seven consecutive second-half Bruins possessions in a 67-63 loss on Saturday in Pullman.
But regardless of the ferocity of their next opponent’s offense, the WSU defense has much room for improvement – and not much recent precedent for doing so.
If history can be a guide for whether a defense can turn itself around after a rough four-game start, there isn’t evidence that Washington State has done so lately.
The Cougars’ defense ranks 91st in the FBS in total defense, allowing 424.0 yards per game. That is the program’s most through four games since 2016, when the Cougars started 2-2 and gave up 424.8 yards per game during that stretch.
In their next two games, the Cougars’ offense put up more than 100 points on offense, and their defense didn’t allow a touchdown against Idaho (56-6) before allowing four in a 51-33 victory over Oregon two weeks later.
After eight more Pac-12 games and a bowl loss to Minnesota – whose head coach at the time was Tracy Claeys – the Cougars ended the year 8-5. But their defense hadn’t improved much, shaving only about 20 yards off their per-game average, to 405.9 (62nd best nationally).
Claeys, now in his second year as WSU’s defensive coordinator, told reporters Wednesday that this year’s Cougars are certainly capable of improving on defense, and that they didn’t need to look back far in their schedule to gather evidence.
“It’s very simple, it’s like: We need to be able to take the second half of the Houston game, and the first 2 1/2 quarters of the UCLA game, put that all in one game, and then we’ll have what we want,” he said. “We’re very capable of doing that, and that’s what we’re working for.”
In those four consecutive quarters, the Cougars’ defense was better if not spectacular: The 394 yards allowed over that span would, on a per-game basis, rank 76th nationally. They also allowed 27 points – one a special teams touchdown – during that stretch and forced three turnovers.
If the Cougars played to that level on defense over the course of four quarters on the same Saturday, and their offense racked up even far less than its average of 605 yards and nearly 53 points per game, the Cougars would be well-positioned to win most of their games.
In 2016, when Washington State’s offense put up 482.5 yards per game and allowed 405.9, that formula worked well enough for WSU to win eight games. The season before that, in 2015, the Cougars allowed more yards on average (416.2) and had a less-potent offense (434.8 yards per game) yet still went 9-4.
Ultimately, then, the Cougars’ defense doesn’t need to be excellent for them to win. It’s just that in the last two years, it was closer to excellent than terrible, ranking 42nd a year ago and 16th the season before that in total defense. The Cougars were 9-4 in 2017 and 11-2 last year, the program’s first 11-victory campaign.
This season, the Cougars are thin at linebacker, playing without junior Dominick Silvels (personal issues) for all four games and without junior Dillon Sherman (lower body injury) the last two.
They have also struggled to get to the quarterback, recording seven sacks. That is their lowest total through four games since 2016, when they had four at this juncture. Two years ago they had 15, and last year 12 by this point in the season.
On the back end, they are mixing in three new starters in the secondary and are without Jalen Thompson, who in late June lost his final year of eligibility due to a violation of NCAA rules. Thompson is now playing in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals.
It is clear to Claeys that work needs to be done, yet he expressed confidence that the Cougars will figure out a way to do it, regardless of opponent.
“We’re gonna attack, keep playing, doing our job, and we’ll be just fine,” Claeys said.
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