PULLMAN – Before he could talk about his outing, a game-turning performance in one of his team’s biggest games in program history, Brennan Jackson paused. He had to talk about his buddy.
“I’m just gonna start by saying this: RJ is a dawg,” Jackson said, referring to his Washington State teammate at edge, RJ Stone Jr. “Let’s all just put that out there. He had a game.”
That he had. On Sept. 9, in WSU’s win over Wisconsin, Stone recorded two strip-sacks, both recovered by Jackson, one for a touchdown. The Cougars’ star tandem could do no wrong. As their team captured the eyes of the college football world, Stone and Jackson sat at the controls.
Nearly two months later, Washington State has lost four straight, and Stone has not recorded a sack since. Jackson has posted four since that win. For two straight games now, though, neither has posted a sack.
For the Cougars, it’s a problem equal parts troubling and perplexing. If WSU’s defense is a car, its engine is Stone and Jackson, who change games with their pass rush, wreaking so much havoc in the backfield that opposing quarterbacks get spooked into making dangerous throws and poor choices. For years now, Washington State’s defense has gone as Stone and Jackson have.
Except now, as WSU tries to erase its four-game slide with a home matchup against Stanford this weekend, the duo has gone radio silent. They’re being double-teamed, and opposing quarterbacks are getting the ball out quicker, and suddenly the heart of the Cougars’ defense is skipping beats left and right.
Jackson had two sacks against UCLA, then one the following week against Arizona. He’s posted zeros in that department in the two games since. Stone, who hasn’t had a sack since the Wisconsin game, has registered decent numbers in other pass-rush categories: four hurries and three hits against UCLA, three hurries and one hit against Arizona, four hurries and one hit against Arizona State.
But they haven’t been themselves the last few weeks, at least when it comes to recording sacks. What gives?
“I think it’s just the details of how we’re getting there,” WSU edges coach Frank Maile said. “So it’s just little things – fundamentals and technique, which is what we’ve been hitting on. How we could just cut those split seconds down. So it’s not a hurry or a QB hit, so we’re getting home and making it count. So for us, it’s always been the details of our fundamentals.”
For WSU, part of the problem involves its run defense, which hasn’t given opponents much reason to throw the ball. In the Cougars’ loss to Arizona State last week, quarterback Trenton Bourguet threw just 26 passes. In their loss to Oregon the week prior, Bo Nix tried just 25. In those contests, the Sun Devils and Ducks realized they could beat the Cougars with the run, so Jackson and Stone didn’t get nearly as many chances to rush their quarterbacks.
Now the attention turns to Washington State’s run defense – and how Jackson and Stone factor in. In WSU’s past two contests, Pro Football Focus has assigned Jackson run defense grades of 63.6 and 53.7, respectively. Stone graded at 77.5 and 77.4. They’ve been effective in that department, but they haven’t stopped teams on the ground.
That has sowed doubt in the rest of the season for the Cougars, who started with four wins and followed with four duds. If they can’t stop the run consistently enough to convince anyone to pass the ball, how do they create stops at all? They haven’t found an answer.
“For me, the pass-rushing really exists and becomes more successful the mentality in the run exists,” Maile said. “So for these guys, it’s always about stopping the run and allowing us the opportunity to rush the quarterback. So for us, if we want to earn the right to pass rush, we gotta stop the run, bottom line.”
This is the price Stone and Jackson pay for their stellar careers to this point. They’ve been so good that offenses have diagrammed plans around them, assigning double-teams and going above and beyond to neutralize them.
“You wanna get to the quarterback as fast as you possibly can,” Jackson said last week, “and there’s some circumstances where it just feels like no matter what you do, the ball is gone. So it’s gonna be just us staying disciplined throughout the game.”
Now they face the question all the greats do: How do we adjust and keep dominating?
As they think about that one, the Cougars have tinkered with their lineups at the edge position. As injuries plague the spot – edges Lawrence Falatea, Raam Stevenson, Quinn Roff are all out with injuries, and freshman Isaac Terrell missed a game earlier this season – coaches have made several moves, but none more important than moving Nusi Malani, an everyday interior lineman, to edge.
At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, Malani has the body type for the position, one reason coaches felt comfortable making the move. Even before they did so permanently, they tried Malani at edge periodically, a few snaps here and a few there.
Now, as injuries wash over the position group, Malani is taking consistent reps at edge. He’s still working his way into consistent playing time there, but he hasn’t recorded a quarterback pressure across WSU’s last two games.
“He’s one of the few guys we trusted, mentally and physically, to be able to get it done,” Maile said. “He’s been awesome for me. He’s done a great job. Super smart, and he catches on quickly. Puts a lot of work into what we’re asking him to do. So studying and focusing on mastering the edge techniques has been really good. He’s been awesome.”
If there’s any good news in here for Washington State, it’s that Stanford has languished in some of these departments. The Cardinal rank second to last in PFF’s Pac-12 pass-blocking grades, ninth in run-blocking, 10th in pass offense.
Still, the days of WSU chalking up wins are long gone. The Cougars have to stop the run – and unlock their best pass-rushers – to earn that right again.