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Washington State mailbag: In the aftermath of UCLA, how do the Cougars rebound and who steps up as leader of the defense?

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 26, 2019

PULLMAN – The Cougars want to move on from their 67-63 loss to UCLA, and you all do, too. Granted, it’s difficult to approach the next game without revisiting the last one – what transpired to allow the Bruins a 32-point comeback, and what fixes are necessary before Saturday’s game at Utah.

In this week’s mailbag, we discuss Washington State’s morale coming out of the first loss of the season, how the depth chart looks after four weeks and what the Cougars can do to attack the Utes and get their Pac-12 season back on track.

Without being able to be at practices, what vibe or sense do you get from the team about how they feel about last weekend? Is it fuel to the CVE (Cougs vs. Everybody) fire, or should we be (more) worried about going to SLC?

– Austin M.

From everything I’ve gathered talking to players and coaches this week, the Cougars have filed the UCLA game into the proverbial waste basket and don’t wish to touch it again. Now, that’s easier said than done, because the team reviews film every day, and many of the players do extra credit and watch more on their own. Not to mention, most of them are glued to social media and, well, some losses – er, catastrophes – are just harder to avoid than others. Family members console players after losses, friends flood their phone with text messages and classmates want to bring it up in the lecture hall the next week. So, again, the escape avenues are limited.

But Leach’s message has been to march forward, even indicating the media do the same. When I asked the coach how the Cougars had addressed the special teams miscues that led to a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown and a 69-yard punt return touchdown, he said, “We’ve already covered everything on the past game, so I don’t have any comments on the past game.”

Then Leach advised that defensive lineman Tristan Brock, waiting his turn to talk to reporters, would not be commenting on the “past game” and none of the other Cougars would be commenting on the “past game.”

To his credit, Leach generally applies the same rules to wins as he does to losses. Since I’ve covered the team, the Cougars have picked up massive home wins against No. 5 USC and No. 12 Oregon, and went on the road last year to take down No. 24 Stanford. But Leach doesn’t want his players to bask in the big wins, same as he doesn’t want them to wallow in tough losses.

You haven’t been to a Leach news conference until you’ve heard the coach rattle off one of his trademark lines: “Nothing we did last week matters for this week.”

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a football player – any athlete for that matter – who didn’t want to get right back on the field, court or track after suffering the type of embarrassment the Cougars did on Saturday. They’re probably glad the bye week arrives next week, rather than this week. Just imagine sitting on that loss for two full weeks.

Are you expecting depth chart movement?

– Jim

The printed depth chart doesn’t usually change week to week, but I assume you aren’t asking about a piece of paper. I’ll also assume you aren’t asking about the offense, which put up 63 points and continues to remain pretty healthy, with the exception of “Y” receiver Brandon Arconado, who left Saturday’s game with an unspecified injury. (No, I don’t know anything about that at the moment.)

So, let’s move over to the defense. Oh, the defense …

Leach did indicate change could take place during his weekly news conference: “The message is you better improve, otherwise things are going to change around here, or you’ll be replaced. We may need to shuffle things around rosterwise, because we need guys out there that’ll tackle.”

I don’t foresee the Cougars making changes at either of the inside linebacker positions, at least as far as starters are concerned. Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers are the starters, but who spells those two is a more interesting question. Ideally, it’s Dillon Sherman and Dominick Silvels, but both have been absent the last two games, and Silvels hasn’t appeared for the Cougars yet. That means WSU is relying on a walk-on in Hank Pladson and a true freshman in Travion Brown.

Up front, it isn’t inherently clear what the Cougars are doing, if for no other reason than because of the shuffling and rotating that usually goes on with the defensive line. At times, it can be hard to distinguish whether these are customary substitutions WSU would make regardless, or a response to the inconsistent play up front and a search for viable answers. But the Cougars were among the national leaders in sacks last season and they’re barely cracking the top 100 as things stand now. Tristan Brock, at defensive tackle, and Cosmas Kwete, at defensive end, have emerged in the last few games, so look for both to see more run against Utah.

“We desperately need depth there,” Leach said Monday. “Then also I think if somebody can beat somebody out, they’ll certainly replace them. Like Cosmas is doing some good things and he’s explosive and he’s going to improve and he’s going to change. We just want to be there to identify when it happens, so we can get his abilities out there on the field.”

The defensive secondary is still littered with question marks, too. Should it be Derrick Langford or Armani Marsh starting opposite Marcus Strong? Where does George Hicks III fit into the picture? Can Tyrese Ross push Daniel Isom or Bryce Beekman for one of the safety positions? Will Skyler Thomas discover the form at nickelback that he did playing safety last season?

I’m not exactly sure how it’ll manifest, but, yes, I would anticipate some things will look different this Saturday.

With the loss of the two “alpha” leaders (Peyton Pelluer and Jalen Thompson), it is no wonder why the defensive play is inconsistent and tentative. Who will rise up, and will it happen quickly enough to save the season?

– Stuart O.

I think Tracy Claeys would’ve been glad to find some anthracite jerseys for Pelluer, Nick Begg and Hunter Dale had he anticipated the defensive letdown the Cougars experienced Saturday evening.

Losing Pelluer and Thompson was big, but Dale and Begg were valuable leaders as well, and a few of the most respected players on the roster. They never made the all-conference lists, but both players were responsible for making sure the defense never came unhinged, and if nothing else, their voices and body language would’ve been critical tools for the Cougars while things were unraveling Saturday.

Of course, Pelluer and Thompson had strong voices, too, and they accounted for nearly a fourth of the team’s tackles last season. Departing seniors accounted for half of the 787 tackles in 2018, so it’s no wonder the Cougars have floundered in that department this season.

To your point, there hasn’t been a player in the model of Pelluer, Thompson, Dale or Begg rising up to lead WSU’s defense this season. That was a top storyline during fall camp. As much as the Cougars were quizzed about defensive leadership, nobody was able to identify a single player – or a couple of players – who’d fill the void.

Perhaps somebody’s answered the call since a humiliating loss to UCLA in which the Cougars gave up 50 points in the same time it takes most of them to walk home from the football operations building. I ran that by Claeys after Wednesday’s practice, asking “Who’s stepped up vocally the last couple days in practice or the locker room that you’ve noticed?”

Claeys answered with two words: “I have.”

Fans seemed to get a kick out of the response, judging by the reaction I got on Twitter, but Claeys is obviously limited in what he can do from the confines of the press box during the key moments of a game. Pelluer’s voice was the one the Cougars heard most often last season, when they needed to make a shift on the field, or when they needed a pick-me-up on the sideline. That isn’t to say the Cougars beat the Bruins with Pelluer on the field, but his vocal chords could’ve been handy at various stages of the fourth quarter when all else seemed to be coming apart.

So, while I wish I had a better answer to your question, I’m guessing the Cougars do as well.

Did the USC game expose any weaknesses in Utah that the Cougars might be able to exploit?

– Jennifer D.

I wrote about this some earlier in the week, but Utah employed a man coverage against the Trojans’ big, tall receivers that often left the Utes’ defensive backs in precarious one-on-one situations. USC quarterback Matt Fink completed 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns, and Michael Pittman Jr. caught 10 passes for 232 yards and one touchdown.

The Cougars seem to be inviting the Utes to use man coverage against them this weekend. Here’s a recycled quote from Anthony Gordon earlier in the week.

“If people want to man up our receivers, they’re going to have a tough time doing it,” Gordon said. “We’re great on the outside, great on the inside. So we’re not really too worried about what they’re going to do. If they’re in man, we’ll attack them. If they’re in zone, we’re going to sit in our spots and we’re going to hit the open guy.”

We’ve seen Gordon and the receivers hit on a handful of explosive plays this season already. If the Utes resort to man coverage on Saturday, I wouldn’t be stunned to see the quarterback take his chances deep with Tay Martin, Dezmon Patmon, Rodrick Fisher and Easop Winston Jr. against undersized Utah defensive backs.

The Utes switched to a zone coverage midway through the USC game. While it worked in a few scenarios, it’s also what allowed the Trojans to connect on a 77-yard touchdown from Fink to Pittman Jr. A zone typically takes away the big plays, but the Cougars are also capable of moving with short dump-offs, slants and shovel passes.

I’m curious to see what coverage schemes the Utes go to against another Air Raid offense. This could be a good barometer for those that think USC’s wide receivers are better than WSU’s, or those making a case for the opposite.

Will Anthony Gordon get a Heisman campaign?

– Jeff D.

Wouldn’t the prerequisite question be: Will Anthony Gordon be a Heisman Trophy contender?

It’s easy to get carried away, especially on the heels of a season like the one Gardner Minshew had in 2018, and it’s important to remember the Cougars have only had eight players in school history finish top 10 in Heisman voting. Gordon may follow in Minshew’s footsteps and he’s already on track to break many of the single-season records the Jacksonville Jaguars QB set last season.

Gordon’s thrown for 1,894 yards and 21 touchdowns through his first four starts at WSU, while Minshew had 1,547 yards and 11 passing TDs after four games last season. Even if the Cougars don’t match the 11 wins from last season, I have no reason to believe the offense won’t be as prolific as it was in 2018, if not more so.

But it’s far too early to determine how Gordon will fare against some of the more talented defenses in the conference, with only New Mexico State, Northern Colorado, Houston and UCLA as the sample size. Minshew had gaudy numbers against Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington, but he was also productive against Utah, Cal and Stanford.

If Gordon is able to string together a few more strong games against better opposition, we can start to consider this question. But since we’re speaking hypothetically anyway, yes, I’m sure the school would do something for Gordon, similar to what it arranged for Minshew last November.

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