UCLA and USC are apparently not the only Pac-12 schools joining the Big Ten, after all.
While the Los Angeles schools are so far the only schools to turn in their west coast credentials in favor of Big Ten membership, on Saturday it was Washington State (2-0) that showed a mastery of the war-of-attrition style of football for which the historically midwestern conference is known.
And by doing it in a cathedral of smashmouth, Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, the Cougars completed their own change in identity. Consider yourself informed: After a decade of being known as an offense-forward program, WSU is now a program that leads with its defense.
Maybe it is because of how coaches prioritize recruiting. Maybe it is because of a subconscious emphasis in practice. Maybe the speeches are better. Whatever the reason, college football teams have a way of taking on their head coach’s identity.
Rookie head coach Jake Dickert is the first WSU coach with a background in defense since defensive coordinator Bill Doba was promoted to the main job in 2003. For 15 years the Cougars’ leader cut his chops learning how to create points, not prevent them, and when WSU won it was because of superior play on offense.
Coming into this season, it was still the offense that got top billing for the Cougars with the ballyhooed arrival of offensive coordinator Eric Morris and quarterback Cam Ward from Incarnate Word.
But in both of WSU’s wins this season it was Dickert’s defense that jumpstarted a dithering offense. And most impressively on Saturday, they never wilted against a program famous for its ability to grind down opponents.
WSU finally scored the game’s first points shortly after the defense stopped the Badgers on fourth down early in the second quarter. Their other touchdown came after the defense forced a three-and-out on Wisconsin’s first drive of the second half.
And despite the Badgers controlling the clock effectively and employing a truly exceptional running back in Braelon Allen, WSU shut out Wisconsin in the second half, forcing a turnover in the shadow of their own end zone to end the Badgers’ final drive.
“They started to lean on us. They started to do a lot of Wisconsin things,” said Dickert after the game. “The grit (of our players). Keep leaning on each other. It takes one play to keep (their offense) moving, and I think we did a good job of eliminating the explosive plays and make them go the long hard way. Our guys kept fighting.”
The Cougars were able to withstand the onslaught of Wisconsin’s gigantic offensive line because of uncommon depth on the defensive line. They were able to hold firm against the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Allen thanks to size and speed among the linebacking corps that has had one advantage or the other in recent seasons, but rarely both.
A win over a ranked opponent on the road resets expectations for the 2022 season. Simply making a bowl game is now unlikely to satisfy most WSU fans, who now have every reason to believe their team is capable of eight wins or better. That is old hat for this fanbase, which grew accustomed to making noise in the Pac-12 standings during the Mike Leach era.
But if WSU fans find themselves making postseason travel plans there will be some novelty to the experience: a team led by a defense that imposes itself on opponents, eschewing West Coast shootouts for something a little more smashmouth.
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