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WSU rewind: Cougars pass defense meets nation’s top passing offense in high-stakes Apple Cup

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – In-state rivals riding hot streaks will meet for a late-night kickoff in wintry weather on the Palouse.

Washington State scored its third consecutive win, toppling Arizona in the desert. Later Saturday, 15th-ranked Washington picked up its fifth victory in a row, belting Colorado.

Apparently, the conference’s schedule-makers felt like a “Pac-12 After Dark” game in the snow would add more intrigue to an Apple Cup tilt that was already shaping up to be an entertaining matchup.

The Pac-12 announced Sunday morning that WSU and UW will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in near-freezing temperatures at Gesa Field. ESPN claimed the broadcast rights.

“We’re going to celebrate this one (the win over Arizona),” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said when asked about his team’s pre-Apple Cup momentum coming off a 31-20 result that wasn’t as close as the score might suggest. “As soon as we flush this one, we know what the Apple Cup means to everybody. It means a lot to our players. It means a lot to our fan base. It means a lot to Cougs everywhere, and our guys will be ready to fight when the challenge comes.”

The Cougars (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) used pressure packages and turnovers to contain a high-powered Wildcat passing game led by former WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura, who entered the game as the nation’s seventh-most productive passer. He tossed a career-high four interceptions – three on consecutive drives in the third quarter.

De Laura finished with 357 passing yards, surpassing his single-game season average by 30 yards, but he looked unsettled and performed ineffectively through three quarters. De Laura entered the fourth period with 225 yards on 20-for-35 passing, and with his team trailing 31-6.

“We have a high bar on defense,” said Dickert, whose team leads the Pac-12 in points allowed (19.8 per game) and tackles for loss (74). “These guys put in the work the last three years to get to this point. The transition from myself to (this first-year defensive staff) has been seamless, but it’s still a players’ game and these guys bust their tails.”

WSU will need a similarly strong effort from its defense next weekend against the Huskies (9-2, 6-2), who boast the nation’s top passing offense. Transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. leads the FBS with 3,869 passing yards, and he’s ranked No. 20 in the nation in efficiency rating.

UW’s pass-heavy offense will be up against potentially inclement throwing conditions. WSU’s staunch coverage has given up 300-plus yards through the air in just two games – Arizona and Oregon (446) – and has limited seven opponents to 230 passing yards or less.

“Our trust has been big throughout these past few weeks,” said senior cornerback Derrick Langford Jr., who recorded a pick-six in the third quarter versus the Wildcats. “How we communicate on the field has also been big. You can see that we communicate in hand signals, speaking loud. That’s been a big part of being a good secondary.”

WSU’s defensive backfield might be short on depth, but it’s not lacking in confidence.

Faced with perhaps its toughest challenge of the season, the Cougars’ passing defense passed the test, outplaying the Wildcats’ explosive aerial attack for the large part of Saturday’s game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.

The Cougars’ defense bent a bit in the first half but held firm when backed up in its own territory. The Wildcats failed to sustain drives until the late stages of the game, converting 3 of 14 third- and fourth-down plays.

Five of de Laura’s eight completions of more than 20 yards came when the game was already out of reach.

Standout Arizona receiver Dorian Singer racked up 176 yards on nine catches Saturday. All-America candidate Jacob Cowing was held to 37 yards .

WSU’s DBs were positioned well during a three-possession stretch in the third quarter that resulted in three takeaways.

Free safety Sam Lockett III, a Gonzaga Prep grad and first-year Cougar, had a career day.

He jumped an errant pass over the middle of the field for a pick at the 7:05 mark of the third period. Langford logged his first career defensive touchdown on the next drive, snatching an off-target pass toward the sideline for his first interception of the year and following blockers for a 35-yard return. De Laura then got the Wildcats inside WSU’s 30-yard line, but a first-down pass floated and Lockett was in place to make a diving interception.

“Every once in a while, we just challenge Sam to cut it loose, and I thought he went out there and played fast and cut it loose,” Dickert said of the juco transfer. “He isn’t worried about making a mistake. He just had a real understanding that sometimes it isn’t going to be perfect. I thought Sam had his best game since I’ve seen him.”

The Cougars’ five first-team DBs – Lockett, Langford, strong safety Jaden Hicks, nickel Armani Marsh and cornerback Chau Smith-Wade – have shouldered almost all of the reps in the back end over the past several weeks.

Marsh, a senior team captain out of Gonzaga Prep, had his consistency rewarded with an easy interception in the fourth quarter Saturday – a pass bounced off its intended target and into the air, and Marsh was there to collect it. Smith-Wade has emerged as one of the conference’s top CBs. Langford settled in nicely after an up-and-down start to the year, according to Dickert.

“Me and Chau, I feel like we’re the best two corners in the Pac-12, us together,” Langford said. “As you can see, we make plays.”

Senior safety Jordan Lee has been out of the lineup since going down with an injury Oct. 27 versus Utah. He was a “game-time decision” against Arizona, but spent the game on the sideline in street clothes. The Cougars are hoping he can return next weekend and take some pressure off Lockett and Hicks. It appears WSU doesn’t feel confident enough in its reserve options at the other positions in the secondary.

“We’re playing five (DBs) without a rotation,” Dickert said. “This is the first time probably in my career that I’ve done that, so we need to get some more depth and get J. Lee back, so we can rotate some of those guys and keep them fresh. I’m not sure of the total snap numbers, but I know it was quite a bit and our guys left it all on the field.”

WSU’s downfield coverage tightened up as the season progressed.

The Cougars surrendered 21 passing plays of 20 or more yards in their first four games but have given up 25 such plays across seven games since.

Dickert and WSU’s DBs handed much of the credit Saturday to a defensive front that chased de Laura around the backfield. He seemed to have happy feet, scrambling outside of the pocket before plays could develop and rushing throws.

“It isn’t just sacks. It’s getting them off their spot. It’s making them run around a little. It’s not letting them step up (in the pocket),” Dickert said. “We did a really good job in the first half of limiting scramble plays. I think it’s more than just stops and hits and sacks. It’s affecting the quarterback.”

Arizona couldn’t establish a ground game, managing 84 yards – a season-low in Pac-12 play. An adept runner, de Laura was sacked twice and netted minus-10 yards rushing.

“At the end of the day, we made them one-dimensional,” Dickert said. “I thought (defensive coordinator Brian Ward) did a really good job of getting some pressures, and our guys executed against a really tough team.”

The Cougars have recorded nine takeaways across the past three games after forcing just three turnovers over their first five Pac-12 contests. WSU ranks 28th nationally with 19 turnovers gained.