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Washington State notebook: Cougar defense emphasizes ‘finishing’ after late collapse against Oregon

Washington State linebacker Francisco Mauigoa (51) returns an interception 95 yards for a touchdown Saturday against visiting Oregon.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – After collapsing down the stretch Saturday in a stunning loss, Washington State’s defense is putting an extra emphasis on “finishing.”

“We need to make sure we’re going into every single game ready to go four quarters,” edge rusher Brennan Jackson said.

Oregon’s offense stacked up big plays throughout a 44-41 win at Gesa Field, but the Cougars made four red-zone stands in the first half and came up with a couple of timely stops in the second half to preserve a lead before their defense came apart at the seams in crunch time. Oregon was held to 15 points through three quarters, but began the fourth with a goal-line touchdown and shredded WSU’s defense on two quick scoring TD possessions in the final 6 minutes .

“We had some great goal-line stands early in the game,” Jackson said Tuesday after practice at Rogers Field. “That’s kinda the embodiment of finishing.”

The Ducks didn’t have much trouble advancing downfield, yet they couldn’t cross the goal line in the first half against WSU’s defense, which fashioned a “bend-but-don’t-break” identity last season. The Cougars tightened up in the red zone, forcing Oregon to settle for field goals on three of its first four possessions. Cougars linebacker Francisco Mauigoa jumped a short route and returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown on the Ducks’ third drive.

“That was insane, amazing play,” Jackson said.

“They got down there, but we were able to stop them, stop their momentum. So, just going into the fourth quarter, just having that same mentality – we gotta finish the game out, have four strong quarters of football. I think we did that in the first two or three games, but we gotta do it consistently, every single week. There’s going to be some great teams. This is a hard schedule. It’s a hard conference.”

Defensive front production

WSU had five of its seven tackles for loss during Oregon’s first three possessions. The Cougars’ defensive line – arguably the team’s strongest position group – was mostly schemed out of the game and struggled to provide push against the Ducks’ offensive line. WSU’s defense gave up a season-worst 178 rushing yards on 32 carries (5.6 yards per attempt) as Oregon’s speedy tailbacks found room to run outside the tackles.

“There are some things we need to get corrected off of last week’s tape,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said of the Cougars’ rushing defense, which ranks fifth in the Pac-12 and 43rd nationally (112.5 yards per game). “But overall, it’s been a strength of our defense. It needs to continue to be that way.

“You’re not going to win a game not stopping the run and giving up that many explosive plays (including nine runs of over 10 yards). I think there are communication issues we had to address.”

WSU leads the nation with 38 tackles for loss. Eleven Cougars have recorded multiple TFLs this season. Linebacker Daiyan Henley paces the Pac-12 with 8½ and Jackson has 6½ – fourth in the conference and tied for 12th in the FBS.

The Ducks leaned on their passing attack in the second half after identifying weaknesses in the Cougars’ secondary. WSU, a top-five team in the country in sacks (14), never got to Oregon quarterback Bo Nix. The Ducks are the only team in the FBS that hasn’t allowed a sack this season.

“They were just getting the ball out to space and they were very quick in their dropbacks,” Jackson said. “Bo Nix made some great reads early on. The offensive line was really walling us back. They were getting some good depth on their drops and honestly, Bo Nix being back 11 yards, it’s tough to get there when he’s going through one or two reads, then throwing the ball.

“They had a really good game plan against us. … We saw it, we saw what they did well and we’re going to have some countermeasures for it going forward.”

WSU piled up six sacks against an overmatched FCS squad from Idaho and produced seven sacks versus Colorado State, which has allowed more sacks than any team in the FBS this season. The Cougars managed one total sack against Wisconsin and Oregon – likely the two best offensive line groups WSU will face this year. Boosting sack totals has been a priority for the Cougars this season after they logged 21 in 2021.

“It’s a great stat to have … it just changes the momentum of the game,” Jackson said. “If we can start to get more consistent, getting sacks every single game and not just huge, explosive ones – where we have seven or six – but having consistently three every game and really get to the quarterback and get him rattled, that’s what we want our identity on the defensive line to be.”

Pass coverage

The Cougars surrendered 446 passing yards. In the second half, it became apparent that Nix was looking to pick on WSU’s inexperienced safeties. The deep ball sparked the comeback. WSU isn’t placing the full blame on its secondary for the breakdowns in its passing coverage.

“It’s a combination of a bunch of different things,” Dickert said. “With explosive passes, you look at pass rush, you look at linebackers (playing alone in coverage), you look at DB execution. It was all the above.”

The Cougars’ defenders often weren’t on the same page when Oregon elected to pass.

“They did stretch the field,” cornerback Chau Smith-Wade said. “We just gotta do better with our communication. That’s it.”

The Cougars (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) are “hopeful” that veteran strong safety Jordan Lee will return for Saturday’s game against Cal. The senior Nevada transfer went through warmups before kickoff against Oregon and was a “game-time decision,” but was held out for the second consecutive week due to an injury sustained Sept. 10 at Wisconsin. Second-year freshman Jaden Hicks filled in. Hicks and free safety Sam Lockett III tied for the team lead with 11 tackles apiece against the Ducks, who aimed to push the ball into the Cougars’ last line of defense throughout the second half.

The Cougars’ passing defense – one of the team’s question marks coming into the season – ranks 11th in the Pac-12 and 109th nationally (274 yards per game).

WSU will be up against a run-heavy opponent when it hosts Cal (3-1, 1-0) for homecoming on Saturday. The Bears’ offense is headlined by a star true freshman tailback in Jaydn Ott, who totaled 274 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries last weekend in Cal’s runaway win over Arizona.

“It’s going to be very important to contain him and not let him get his stride early in the game, start getting some TFLs on him and get him rattled,” Jackson said of Ott, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.

The Cougars’ defense will be eager to bounce back after getting a wake-up call from Oregon.

“Every mistake is an opportunity for growth,” Jackson said. “Coming out of that game, we saw a lot of growth opportunities, a lot of things we can get better at as a whole. We never want to pin a loss on any single person. We’re a team, so we’re just going forward and making sure we get better from this.”

Henley added to another watch list

Henley, a first-year Cougar linebacker, was named to the watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, as announced by the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation.

The Lott IMPACT Trophy, named after Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, recognizes the defensive player of the year in college football, taking into account athletic performance and personal character.

Henley, a senior Nevada transfer, leads the Pac-12 and ranks third nationally with 8½ tackles for loss. He is the conference’s fourth-most productive tackler (38) and sits third with four sacks. Henley was named national defender of the week by the Bednarik Award and the Reese’s Senior Bowl after a three-sack performance Sept. 17 against Colorado State. He is a watch list player for Reese’s Senior Bowl and the Butkus Award, presented annually to the top LB in the country.

USC kickoff time announced

The Cougars will play their fifth consecutive afternoon game when they meet the Southern Cal Trojans at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

WSU will also be playing its third game of the year in front of a national television audience. Fox will broadcast the game, the Pac-12 Conference announced Monday.