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Sports >  WSU football

‘We need to get back to taking the ball away’: Washington State defense looks for uptick in turnover production

Oct. 11, 2022 Updated Tue., Oct. 11, 2022 at 7:12 p.m.

PULLMAN – Last year, Washington State’s defense distinguished itself for forcing turnovers. The Cougars totaled 29 takeaways, finishing tied for fifth in the nation in that category.

But the Cougars haven’t sustained that level of production this season. At the midway point of its season, WSU is on pace to generate less than half of the 2021 turnover total.

“We need to get back to taking the ball away,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Monday.

The WSU defense has picked off five passes and recovered two of five forced fumbles this year. The Cougars are tied for ninth in the Pac-12 and 74th nationally in turnovers gained.

They had multiple takeaways in their first three games and one in Week 4 – linebacker Francisco Mauigoa’s 95-yard interception return against Oregon – but didn’t come up with any turnovers in their past two contests, a 28-9 home win over Cal and a 30-14 road loss to Southern Cal.

WSU’s 2021 defense registered multiple takeaways in 10 of 13 games. In only one game did the team fail to record a turnover – a 21-19 loss to BYU on Oct. 23.

“Sometimes, (turnovers) come in bunches and they have highs and lows,” Dickert said. “We’re not coaching it any different. We just need to go out there and make some of the plays. It’s the momentum, it’s the energy, it’s the short fields that we can create.”

To be sure, defense remains the Cougars’ strong point. The team has been solid in all but one game this season. Why the drop-off in turnover production? It’s tough to pin down. Perhaps it’s coincidental.

The Cougars’ defensive lineup lost several pieces from last year, including three key defensive backs. Five seniors combined for seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries during the 2021 season.

That experience, especially in the secondary, certainly factored into WSU’s high volume of turnovers.

The Cougars didn’t make any changes this season to their defensive scheme or practice routines. They still put an emphasis on swarming and attacking the ball.

“It’s a mindset. You have to train yourself to think about (turnovers),” fourth-year linebacker Kyle Thornton said. “A lot of people think turnovers just kind of happen naturally and it’s something that you just fall into, but that’s not the case at all. They’re a result of effort and guys really trying to get at the football.

“How we work on that on the practice field: You see guys overpursuing the ball, guys just running the entire way. Running backs are 20 yards downfield, and you still got defensive ends chasing them down from behind. It might look kinda silly on tape – ‘Why’s this guy running so far?’ But it shows up on game day. … That’s how we practice it here.”

Compared to 2021, WSU is deeper and more talented up front, but is younger and enjoys less depth in the defensive backfield.

Jordan Lee, a senior strong safety with a knack for creating turnovers, returned to the field last weekend in a limited capacity against USC after missing three games with a lower-body injury.

Lee recovered five fumbles and forced four last season at Nevada. He wants to see WSU’s defense produce three takeaways per game from here on out.

“When you see it, you gotta take your shot, especially with forcing fumbles,” he said. “We just gotta execute in the games, just trust our eyes, trust what we’re seeing. When the opportunity comes, just make the most of it. We can’t let these opportunities pass by, because they obviously change games.”

The Cougars (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) will travel to Corvallis this weekend to take on Oregon State (4-2, 1-2), which has struggled to protect the ball this year. Two Beavers quarterbacks have combined for a conference-high 10 interceptions.

“People have been stopping them a little bit with takeaways,” Dickert said. “That’s the one thing they have been doing this year that is uncharacteristic of them in big games.”

The Cougars’ offense has also had some trouble with giveaways, committing 12 (seven interceptions, five lost fumbles). WSU is coming off its first turnover-free game of the season.

“It’s something we’ve emphasized,” Dickert said. “(The last game) is a step in the right direction. I just want to make sure we’re not running the ball with two hands in open field, because we’re so worried about it, or (quarterback Cameron Ward) is worried about it. I thought he played a clean game (against USC) and when the opportunities were presented, he took chances down the field.”

WSU’s running defense improves

The Beavers lean on their ground game and run for 181 yards per game – good for fourth in the Pac-12 and 44th nationally.

The Cougars’ rushing defense ranks 26th in the nation at 110.5 yards per game. Although they have shown cracks against stout rushing teams – Wisconsin, Oregon and USC recorded about 180 rushing yards apiece – the Cougars appear to have made significant improvements from last season in their ability to contain potent rushing attacks. Last year, WSU gave up 200 or more rushing yards in five games. The Beavers piled up 309 yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries in the Cougars’ 31-24 win in Pullman.

“Most progress has got to be stopping the run,” Thornton said regarding which facet of WSU’s defense has made the biggest strides. “The passion and the fire those defensive tackles – and just the front seven, in general – are playing with, it’s great to see. It’s definitely something we’re going to need this week.

“We know what kind of matchup we’re going into with Oregon State. We know what happened last year, and we know it’s not going to happen again this year. … As a defense, we’ve come to embrace it. We don’t fear the run anymore. We’re ready to attack it.”

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