TEMPE, Ariz. – Where do we start with this Washington State loss, the Cougars’ fourth in a row?
The tackling? Maybe.
The lack of pressure? Perhaps.
The big plays? Also an option.
The truth is that there are no easy answers to that question, which is about the worst problem a defense can have, particularly this late in the season.
Washington State’s 38-27 loss to Arizona State fit just about every descriptor imaginable: disastrous, embarrassing, concerning, damning. To hand the Sun Devils just their second win of the season – and their first over an FBS foe – the Cougars didn’t just submit a flat effort on defense. They hardly submitted anything at all.
“We’re either getting reached or we’re not spilling the ball when we need to spill it,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’re not communicating on a lot of the shifts and motions. Every time it just seems like one thing.”
WSU’s defense has yielded 38-plus points in three consecutive outings. Poor tackling has plagued them. So has overplaying. As has a lack of ability to generate a turnover. Washington State has failed to do that in three straight games. The problems pile up like leaves on a fall day.
Never has Washington State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding faced more questions. Why can’t his team tackle, especially when it understood how much ASU wanted to run the ball? Why can’t the Cougars force anyone to throw the ball, which is the only way to leverage edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson’s abilities? Why did they feel compelled to start a redshirt freshman over a traveled senior at linebacker in this game?
“We’re better than that personnel-wise – we are,” Dickert said. “I believe it. I believe in our coaches. I believe that we gotta get it corrected. But it’s gotta be faster. We gotta get our guys answers.”
WSU, the 4-0 darling of college football a month ago, has lost four straight. The Cougars once looked like a lock for a bowl. Now they have four chances to get two wins. They have fallen from grace like someone shoved them off a cliff, and now as they look around, they realize they’re the culprit after all.
So much around this team has changed during this losing streak, which has no end in sight. This stretch of schedule once felt like a softer part for the Cougars. Now a home matchup with Stanford feels dicey. A road test against California feels dangerous. A home game with Colorado feels like a tall task, and an away Apple Cup game feels like a loss that should have gone on the books yesterday.
For the Cougars, the main issue was their inability to run the ball, which remains a serious problem. But now the spotlight goes to their defense, which can’t solve any issues, no matter how much it shuffles personnel.
To its credit, WSU has tried some things. Redshirt freshman Buddha Al-Uqdah earned the start over linebacker Devin Richardson. Everyday interior lineman Nusi Malani is taking reps at edge. Career backup Na’im Rodman is starting on the interior of the defensive line. WSU started Javan Robinson over cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who Dickert said missed the game with a soft-tissue injury.
But nothing has seemed to make any material difference. Can the Cougars improve? What cards are they still holding – and how many moves are there to make?
“You get to this point of the year, especially the last third, I mean, you start trimming down practice to stay fresh,” Dickert said. “Besides tackling on live bodies, which you don’t do at this point in the year, it’s hard. Tackling is tracking and tracking is angles, right?
“So it’s leveraged. When you’re an inside leverage player, you gotta stay on your inside hip. You gotta trust that the outside-leverage player is gonna stay out there as well. So there’s a few things there, and got some young players out there. They’re learning on the fly too a little bit.”
What’s clear is, Washington State cannot keep rolling out the same defense – or at least trust it in the same way. If the Cougars want to make a bowl game, the only way to salvage what is quickly becoming a forgettable season, they’ll need to make wholesale changes.
That could start with leaning hard into one of the only remaining strengths of the team – its pass offense. Quarterback Cameron Ward didn’t get much shine in this game, but he turned in another solid outing: 35-for-50 passing for 315 yards and one touchdown, plus two rushing touchdowns. He was far from perfect, but take him away and the Cougars get embarrassed even worse.
He might need to strap on a Superman cape to carry WSU into a bowl game. His offensive line will have a hand in that, of course, but what option do the Cougars have? Keep trying to run the ball? Ask the defense to create a turnover? The longer WSU plays, the more it becomes clear its weaknesses outnumber its strengths.
Ward can’t do it all himself, but he might represent his team’s only chance at saving what’s left of this season.
“We missed some plays out there on offense for sure, especially in the red zone,” Ward said. “We weren’t good. But we just get back to making routine plays, getting the ball out … we’ll finish out good.”
That matters in the short term, in the time it will take for WSU to make a bowl. In the long term and big picture, these issues matter in much graver ways.
WSU has done a marvelous job at retaining recruits during this period, as it looks for a conference home, but what will prospects make of this tumble? Just a month ago, the Cougars established themselves a serious TV draw, which is the kind of thing that matters more than it ever has.
They can still get back there – but if this keeps up, what kinds of audience numbers will they lose?
WSU can still veer this train back on the tracks. The Cougars can still make a bowl. Their path there, to a bowl game and beyond, just looks murkier. That’s no way for a proud program to operate in late October.