TEMPE, Arizona – In terms of amassing takeaways, Washington State’s defense is rivaled by only a couple of others in the FBS.
When interim coach Jake Dickert discusses the Cougars’ aptitude for forcing turnovers, he doesn’t talk as much about the fundamentals, the drills, the practices.
He tends to relate takeaways with the intangibles that this WSU team is becoming known for. Traits like collective effort come to mind.
“(Turnovers) come from playing hard and caring about each other,” he said after WSU’s 34-21 thumping of Arizona State on Saturday, during which the Cougs pocketed a season-high five takeaways to increase their tally to 21 on the year – a top-three total nationally as of press time. “When the ball’s on the ground, we’re there because we’re running to the ball, because we care more. That’s the mindset our guys have taken this whole season.
“I think our want-to is high, and our care and love for each other is really high. That was evident today.”
Aside from the turnovers-gained column, WSU’s defensive statistics won’t wow anyone. The Cougs have somewhat of a “bend, but don’t break” M.O.
They’re opportunistic. They make sudden, momentum-shifting plays.
That was again the case in the desert.
“It was just effort, effort to the ball,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “Good things happen when you run to the ball.”
Mainstay middle linebacker Justus Rogers tracked down ASU running back DeaMonte Trayanum, who was angling toward the sideline on the Sun Devils’ second play. Rogers got a hand on the ball and tugged, pulling it free. Defensive tackle Amir Mujahid, adhering to Dickert’s “play hard” philosophies, had caught up to the play to provide support if needed. He ended up finding a loose ball.
On the Devil offense’s next play from scrimmage, quarterback Jayden Daniels connected with Bryan Thompson on a slant route.
WSU cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. had him wrapped up. Safety Daniel Isom raced about 15 yards to offer help. Spotting a loosely held ball, Isom ripped it away from Thompson just before his knee hit turf. At that point, another three or four Cougars were surrounding the play. Rogers was the first one there, so he scooped the ball up.
Late in the second quarter, Coug linebacker Kyle Thornton exhibited a textbook strip and forced a fumble from a hurdling Daniyel Ngata. A host of WSU defenders had already rallied behind Thornton, and spirited edge Ron Stone Jr. pounced on the pigskin to gift WSU’s offense a short field, which the Cougs scored on to extend their lead to 28-0.
“We just bring intent to what we do,” Stone said.
Dickert said the Cougars emphasize “the value of the ball” and “how you can affect the ball” from Day 1 of fall camp.
“They take it to heart,” he said. “It doesn’t just show up on Saturdays. These guys practice it during the week. Our coaches drill it during the week. It’s fun to see those guys create momentum and make those plays.”
Without question, WSU’s defense was the story of the day. Along with those three first-half fumble recoveries, the unit also got interceptions from Chau Smith-Wade and Jaylen Watson.
Smith-Wade’s first-quarter pick stalled an ASU drive in the red zone, and WSU’s defense made a few more gutty plays not long after.
Coug quarterback Jayden de Laura was intercepted deep in WSU territory on an errant shovel pass, yet the Cougs’ defenders dug in and forced a three-and-out – the Devils then shanked a short field-goal try.
ASU hadn’t committed five turnovers in a game in 11 years and entered the day with only 10 giveaways this year.
When the Cougars’ offense began to lose its mojo in the third quarter, the defense answered the call, inducing three punts.
Overall, WSU’s tackling saw a major improvement from last week – when the Cougs allowed 238 rushing yards to BYU. Dickert said the defense was effective in limiting ground gains on first downs, which proved key in ASU’s 5-of-13 mark on third downs.
The Sun Devils came into the game averaging over 200 rushing yards per game and leading the Pac-12 with 22 TDs on the ground. The hosts totaled 131 yards and a touchdown.
Much of that had to do with the Cougars’ edge containment of quarterback Jayden Daniels, a smooth runner with an exceptional top gear. Daniels, a 400-yard rusher this year, was harassed in the backfield and held to 31 yards on 10 attempts.
“He’s an elite-level player. He’s an NFL player,” Dickert said of Daniels. “Our guys had an awareness of the times we needed to spy him, the times we needed to be aggressive. We needed him to make some bad decisions on the run, and I felt like we did that.”
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