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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: As Cougs move on from ASU loss, defensive issues crystallize

Washington State defenders Cam Lampkin, left, and Sam Lockett high-five after stopping Arizona State during the first half Saturday in Tempe, Ariz.  (Darryl Webb/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Roughly a month ago, back when Washington State was still unbeaten and still maintained the fascination of college football, head coach Jake Dickert thought back to when he first became a head coach.

That was two years ago, shortly after WSU fired coach Nick Rolovich for failing to comply with the state vaccine mandate, and Dickert ascended from defensive coordinator to interim head coach. Dickert still manned the defense that season, but a year later, he had to hire his first defensive coordinator. This year, he hired another.

That forced Dickert, a lifelong defensive guy, to hand off the defensive responsibilities.

“It was very hard,” Dickert said. “Very difficult.”

As this Washington State defense gets gashed left and right, as the Cougars’ defensive woes keep the end of this four-game losing streak nowhere in sight, is it time for Dickert to tap back into his roots and pull the reins back a little?

Dickert and defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding both agreed on this: They share a strong relationship, and each coach respects the other’s boundaries. Dickert may feel a tug toward defense sometimes, but he understands there’s a difference between sharing tips and operating the whole defense.

But this WSU defense is running out of answers. In Saturday’s 38-27 loss to Arizona State, Washington State allowed 38 points, its third straight game yielding that total or more. The Cougars permitted the Sun Devils, a banged-up group whose only offense this season has come via the ground game, to rack up more points than they scored all year – even more than they registered in their only win to that point, a victory over FCS Southern Utah.

So sluggish has Washington State’s defense been that it can’t leverage the talents of its best players, edges RJ Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson. Those guys are at their best when they’re rushing the passer, of course, but the Cougs can’t force anyone to drop back and give those guys a chance.

On Oct. 21, a few moments after WSU fell to Oregon, linebacker Kyle Thornton said it best: “We talk about it on defense – having to earn the right to pass-rush.”

Across these last four games, all losses, Washington State has hardly done so. When’s the last time the Cougars did? Against UCLA? In that one, Stone got some pressure that forced quarterback Dante Moore to throw a duck that led to a Sam Lockett III interception.

Stone’s last sack came against Northern Colorado. Jackson’s last came against Arizona. Not even against an ASU offensive line that started Isaia Glass, who started in place of a lineman who only began playing football last season, could WSU generate a sack.

To be sure, that isn’t all on Stone and Jackson. Offenses are getting the ball out quicker and quicker and, as they realize those guys are the only Cougs who pose a threat in the pass-rush game, they’re double-teaming them. Take them out of the equation and you usually earn a clean pocket.

“I feel like they just have to know that they’re the best and just kinda just play with that chip on their shoulder,” Lockett said after Saturday’s game. “Those are two really good guys. We got some good interior guys, too. They just need to play with that confidence, that’s all.”

For that reason and others, the Cougars’ edges aren’t producing, which wouldn’t be such an issue if WSU’s defense was holding up in other areas. That is far from the case. Washington State missed 12 tackles in this loss to ASU. The leader was Thornton, who whiffed on three. Linebacker Buddha Al-Uqdah missed two of his own. Seven different Cougars missed one apiece.

For WSU, the trouble is one of its most pressing issues is also one of the most difficult to improve at. The Cougars are already dealing with injuries. They can’t exactly live-tackle each other in practice. Outside of games, there’s only so much they can do to simulate tackling.

So what can WSU do?

“Just full-speed reps all the time,” Lockett said. “When we do team (periods), just making sure that you’re getting the right angles and taking our angles and just finishing with a tag every single time. It’s about getting to the ball. Eleven hats to the ball every time.”

Then there’s the problem that persisted against Arizona State: Washington State can’t generate a turnover. The last time the Cougars did, back when Kapena Gushiken snared an 88-yard pick-six against UCLA, feels like a lifetime ago. To be more exact, that was 14 quarters ago. WSU hasn’t created a takeaway since.

Lots of these issues are tied together, which makes Washington State’s task exponentially more difficult. The Cougars can’t do much to stop the run – they still rank last in the Pac-12 in run defense, per Pro Football Focus – which means opponents are only running the ball against them. That means Stone and Jackson can’t pressure the quarterback, which is where several of the Cougs’ turnovers have come from, and before you know it the whole operation has gone kerplunk.

Washington State can start with one step: Stop the run. The Cougars’ next chance comes this weekend in Pullman, where they’ll host Stanford for an evening kickoff.

A month ago, that game seemed like a gimme for WSU. Now it feels dicey. WSU is playing the guessing game as much as anyone watching the games.

“We gotta fly around and knock the run down,” Dickert said. “We knew that they were gonna be a run team. We need to force them to pass. We didn’t get off the field on third down. It was not good enough on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s on me.”

Just how much is it? That much is up to Dickert.