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Sports >  WSU football

Sun Bowl takeaways: Washington State defense has the pieces to sustain success

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 5, 2022

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s defense fielded a capable product on a weekly basis throughout its resurgent season.

The Cougars were sometimes exceptional on that side of the ball, and seldom worse than competent. In their finale, they played well enough.

WSU (7-6) knuckled down on defense in a 24-21 Sun Bowl loss Friday to Central Michigan in El Paso, Texas, putting forth a consistent effort to keep its severely shorthanded offense within striking distance.

New defensive coordinator Brian Ward assumes control of a unit that set a foundation for success this year – a breakthrough built on swarming effort, turnovers and resilient attitude.

Several returning catalysts will ease Ward’s transition next year in the first season of the Jake Dickert era at WSU. The Cougars need to retool at linebacker and safety, but they’re equipped otherwise.

In the second of our two position-by-position breakdowns, we’ll examine WSU’s defense and special teams. How did each group fare versus CMU, and where do they stand at season’s end?

Edges secure

It appears WSU will bring back its entire crew of effective edge rushers – a group that emerged in 2021 as one of the team’s deepest and most productive.

Ron Stone Jr. had a nose for the ball all season and pulled in first-team All-Pac-12 accolades. On the other end, junior Brennan Jackson demonstrated a similarly spirited playing style.

Young backups Quinn Roff, a walk-on from California, and Andrew Edson, a powerful rookie from Snoqualmie, Washington, showed signs of bright futures. Fifth-year senior Willie Taylor III wasn’t honored on senior night, an indication that he’ll perhaps return.

Stone earned the Sun Bowl’s defensive lineman of the game award after totaling four tackles near the line of scrimmage and pressuring CMU quarterback Daniel Richardson a couple of times.

WSU’s defensive line didn’t record any sacks – it was the Cougars’ first game without a sack since Week 1. The edges, playing against a limited Chippewas offensive line, forced Richardson to tuck and run out of the pocket on four occasions, and he gained just 3 yards on those broken plays.

The Chippewas went 3 of 17 on third downs. They were pestered on a handful of those snaps by WSU’s speed-oriented “Cheetah” front, composed of four edge rushers.

The Cougars’ interior D-line hadn’t been superb this year against power-running foes that lean on between-the-tackles play calls. CMU running back Lew Nichols III, the nation’s leading rusher, broke off six runs of over 10 yards, and all of them went through the heart of the Cougars’ defense.

Yet Nichols wasn’t constantly bursting into open space like a few opposing tailbacks had against WSU this season. He ran into a wall and was stacked up by rallying Cougar defenders on nine plays that went for either a loss or no gain.

Nichols still managed 120 yards on 28 carries.

“Tackling after five weeks (between games) can always be an issue, but I think overall they played well,” Dickert said of his defense.

Six defensive tackles, all of them upperclassmen, have seen time this year in the Cougars’ rotation. There’s a chance that all of them are on the roster again in 2022.

WSU also signed an experienced 6-foot-6, 275-pound Virginia transfer last week in Nusi Malani.

Second-year assistant A.J. Cooper will reassume his duties next season as edge coach only. He has mentored the entire D-line since mid-October, when D-tackles coach Ricky Logo was fired along with three other Cougar assistants and coach Nick Rolovich.

The Cougars have hired veteran Wyoming assistant Pete Kaligis to mentor their DTs going forward. The interior of the Cowboys’ defensive line was always stout in the ground game under Kaligis, who’ll be tasked with developing the Cougars’ big men into formidable run-stoppers.

Two record-breakers depart LB group

The two longest-tenured players in Cougars history said farewell Friday. Pillars in WSU’s lineup across five seasons, linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers made their 56th and final collegiate appearances.

The two conclude their Cougar careers tied atop the program’s all-time career list for games played.

Rogers recorded his most productive day in crimson and gray on his last day sporting a football uniform.

The instinctual middle linebacker flowed into running lanes and squeezed through gaps in the Chippewas’ line, posting a career-best (and team-high) 10 tackles and matching his career high with 2½ tackles for loss.

Rogers has decided to hang up the cleats. He recently accepted a job at an accounting firm in his hometown of Bellevue. Woods, meanwhile, is eyeing the NFL.

A hard hitter with a high motor and WSU’s record-holder in career starts (52), Woods contributed eight tackles versus CMU to improve his season total to 109 – fourth in the Pac-12 and 34th nationally. The fifth-year starter on the weak side totaled 427 stops throughout a distinguished career to cement his status as a top-four WSU tackler of all time.

Woods pounced on an unforced Chippewas fumble in the red zone early in the third quarter, one of two second-half takeaways collected by an opportunistic WSU defense that tightened up in its second level as the game progressed and limited CMU to three points after the half, thereby opening the door for a potential comeback.

It was a backup linebacker who had the Cougars’ play of the game. Junior Travion Brown, expected to be a breakout star next season, telegraphed a screen pass late in the third period, jumping a lobbed toss for a momentum-altering interception in Chippewas territory.

Replacing 112 games’ worth of football wisdom between Woods and Rogers may seem like a daunting undertaking for WSU, but the Cougars don’t plan on taking much of a step backward at the linebacker position in 2022.

Taking over in the center of Ward’s 4-2-5 defense will presumably be Brown, who has played meaningful reps in 24 games over the past three seasons.

The Cougars achieved a major recruiting victory last month when they signed grad transfer Daiyan Henley, an All-Mountain West performer for Nevada at LB, who compiled 103 tackles in 2021. Henley chose the Cougars and Ward – the Wolf Pack’s DC for the last two seasons – over offers from Southern Cal and Washington.

WSU shouldn’t be undermanned behind Brown and Henley. Former walk-on Kyle Thornton, a sophomore, saw an expanded role on defense this year. True freshman Francisco Mauigoa drew praise from coaches throughout the year and special teams standout Ben Wilson, a TCU transfer, will apparently return to Pullman next season as a fifth-year senior.

Smoothing out the secondary

At safety, the Cougars are starting fresh. At nickel and cornerback, they’re set up pretty well.

WSU mainstay George Hicks III and grad transfer Tyrone Hill Jr. started at free and strong safety, respectively, in the Sun Bowl.

Neither will return to Pullman next year.

The same goes for team captain Daniel Isom, who started over Hill all season before sustaining a year-ending leg injury on senior night Nov. 19 against Arizona.

Sophomore Halid Djibril won a preseason competition for free safety, but entered his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal recently after missing all but a game and a half this year with a leg injury.

The Cougars might be going into spring camp without all four of the safeties listed on their two-deep at the beginning of this season.

But in filling the holes with ready-made talent, they’re off to a fast start.

Last month, WSU signed junior college transfer Sam Lockett III, a former Utah State player and Spokane native. The Cougars secured a commitment earlier this week from Jordan Lee, who played in 46 games over the last four years at Nevada.

WSU’s nickel position is shored up. Stalwart Spokane product Armani Marsh accepted an extra year of eligibility and Armauni Archie will return from a season-ending injury.

The Cougars’ cornerback rotation is at least four-deep at the moment.

NFL hopeful Jaylen Watson opted out of the Sun Bowl, but WSU’s corners didn’t slip much. Senior Derrick Langford Jr., sophomore Chau Smith-Wade, senior transfer Kaleb Ford-Dement and junior transfer Chris Jackson combined for a respectable outing in pass coverage. They’re all expected to be back on the Palouse in 2022.

WSU’s secondary mostly thwarted CMU’s shots downfield, particularly in a second half that featured just two Chippewas completions over 10 yards. Cougar DBs clamped down on short out routes and were key in stopping five second-half Chippewas possessions.

CMU’s passing offense came into the game ranked 25th nationally at 270 yards per game. Richardson passed 16 of 29 for 193 yards and fired a crucial 15-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, connecting with tight end Joel Wilson, who overpowered his undersized coverage.

Dickert lamented a few explosive plays surrendered, but the Cougars can feel reasonably encouraged about their pass coverage heading into 2022. They held opposing quarterbacks under 200 yards in seven games this year and conceded just 16 touchdowns.

A DB unit prone to lapses in years past finished this season fourth in the Pac-12 in per-game passing defense (215.15 yards).

Second-year safeties/nickels coach Mark Banker has received a fair amount of credit for the turnaround. He’ll be retained on staff. It’s uncertain whether the Cougars will promote interim cornerbacks coach Jordan Malone or shop for a new assistant.

Haberer dauntless in first season

The Cougars’ true freshman punter from Down Under earned every WSU fan’s respect just after Friday’s game, when he revealed that he’d been planting on a broken ankle throughout the back half of the season.

Nick Haberer played through what must have been excruciating pain for six games after breaking his left ankle “and tearing most my ligaments” against Stanford on Oct. 16. He announced the news Friday afternoon in a tweet, which included two gnarly photographs of his scar and swollen foot.

Cougars teammates, coaches and supporters extended kudos.

“You’re a tough (one) mate,” kicker Dean Janikowski tweeted.

Haberer punted seven times for an average of 43.3 yards per boot in the first half at the Sun Bowl. The former Aussie Rules player made a touchdown-saving tackle late in the second quarter, stopping star CMU return man Kalil Pimpleton in the red zone after a 45-yard runback. Earlier in that quarter, Haberer had trouble with a high snap on an intermediate field-goal attempt and was dropped in the backfield.

He may have reaggravated his injury at some point in the second quarter. Haberer didn’t join the Cougars when they emerged from the locker room after the break, and reserve kicker Andrew Boyle filled in at punter for the remainder of the game.

The Cougars have been a mostly dependable special teams outfit throughout this season, but they slipped in that department Friday. Slotback Travell Harris fumbled a kick return, setting up a CMU score that made it 13-0 late in the first quarter. WSU missed out on points due to Haberer’s bobble and surrendered a TD just before the half because of a lapse in punt coverage.

Edge-rusher Stone made up for some of the earlier special-teams snafus with a blocked field goal early in the fourth, which prevented the Chippewas from fashioning a two-score lead and helped spark the Cougars’ near-comeback.

Haberer and Janikowski – a sophomore first-team All-Pac-12 pick – are locked into their specialist roles for years to come.

Special teams coordinator Kyle Krantz reportedly will not be retained by the Cougars in 2022, but his replacement is uncertain.

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