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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: As Cougs’ offense gets rightful shine, let’s appreciate their defense

Washington State Cougars defensive back Cam Lampkin breaks up a pass intended for Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Silas Bolden on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Two summers ago, Cam Lampkin felt unsure of himself. He had just made the jump from Utah State to Washington State, and even as he ascended the cornerback depth chart and earned playing time for the Cougars, he couldn’t shake the feeling.

Did he belong?

“It was up and down for me,” Lampkin said. “I was a little nervous. I was a little scared.”

That was the magic in Lampkin’s outing on Saturday, helping WSU topple Oregon State in a 38-35 victory: He may have made seven tackles, tied for tops on the team, and he may have added to his sterling showing with one tackle for loss and two pass breakups.

More importantly, though, Lampkin looked the part of a Pac-12 cornerback. He looked like he belonged.

In Saturday’s game, he showed it in spades. Late in the second quarter, after Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward lost a costly fumble that gave OSU the ball with a chance to tie the game, Beavers star running back Damien Martinez took a handoff on the left side. He saw nothing but green grass ahead of him, and with a touchdown Oregon State could have zapped all the hosts’ momentum.

Instead, Lampkin tracked Martinez, shuffled his feet and made a crucial tackle in space. He saved what looked like a potential score. Two plays later, Lampkin’s secondary buddy, safety Jaden Hicks, got home for a fourth-down sack. That ended OSU’s drive. The Cougars’ offense followed with a touchdown drive, pushing their lead back to two scores.

Lampkin was hardly finished. Early in the third frame, moments after WSU kicker Dean Janikowski misfired on a long field goal and the Beavers took over with another opportunity to draw within one score, Lampkin turned around just in time to knock the ball out of receiver Silas Bolden’s hands. One play later, WSU defensive lineman Nusi Malani got home for a sack. On their ensuing drive, the Cougars used another touchdown drive to rebuild a two-score lead.

For his next act, midway through the fourth quarter, Lampkin shed off a halfhearted run block, watched Martinez reverse field for more space, then dove for another solo tackle. Martinez went down for a loss as Lampkin threw his fist in celebration.

Two plays later, Lampkin ensured the answer was no. OSU quarterback DJ Uiagalelei dropped back on a critical third-and-long. He laced a throw to the left side, in the direction of receiver Anthony Gould, who had a step on Lampkin. No matter. With his back to the ball, Lampkin threw his hands up, dislodging the ball and handing the Beavers a fourth-and-long scenario.

That’s about where Lampkin’s flawless night ended. On the next play, he was flagged for pass interference, which prolonged the Beavers’ drive and allowed them to score a touchdown four plays later. As he jogged around after the play, Lampkin looked equal parts confused and frustrated, a near-spotless showing gone.

If that was the worst part of Lampkin’s game, though, it can be forgiven. He made too loud an impact otherwise. On a night when some of his teammates struggled to tackle, Lampkin made two of the takedowns of his life. Do we paint this WSU game in such an encouraging light if he doesn’t?

“I think really what I learned about myself is I can finish any game,” Lampkin said. “Now that I’ve been here, I got my feet wet. I overcame some fears. … Me just knowing that I can do anything and not play timid.”

The Cougars are off this week, so until they return to action Oct. 7 at UCLA, stories about their offense may populate scores of national publications. ESPN. Sports Illustrated. The Athletic. Cameron Ward and his unit deserve the shine. Twenty-seven-year-old offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle has twirled a gem of a season, and thanks to playmakers like wideouts Josh Kelly and Kyle Williams, this offense is humming.

Washington State’s defense, though, has built the foundation for the Cougars’ 4-0 start to the season. They have not been perfect. The Beavers extended several touchdown drives because the Cougars missed easy tackles.

But they have made timely plays, and with an offense like the one WSU rolls out, this defense can afford a mistake or two.

Which is why, if some day Ward finds himself making a postseason awards acceptance speech, he might consider handing out a shoutout to his defense – to playmakers like Lampkin, Malani, Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson.

“He didn’t get what he wanted last year and had to stay the course over and over and over,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said of Lampkin. “And when you do that, you eventually see the results of your work. I’m really proud of that kid. … He’s responded. At corner, you have to have a short memory, and he just kept fighting.”

Malani delivered something like the game of his life, too. A full-time starter for the first time at WSU, he is flourishing into a real weapon on the interior of the Cougars’ defensive line, a 6-foot-4 physical marvel of a man. When he brought down Uiagalelei for that sack, Malani did so from the edge spot, which isn’t his norm – which in turn illustrates the versatility he gives defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding.

One of Malani’s best plays might have been the one that set the stage for his teammate. This came late in the second quarter, OSU in WSU territory, trying to tie the game up before halftime. On third down, Uiagalelei unleashed a throw downfield – except it never made it there because Malani batted it down at the line of scrimmage. One play later, Hicks delivered a sack. WSU kept the lead headed into the intermission.

When they had finished the job, polishing off their second win over a ranked foe in as many weeks, the Cougars celebrated this one with the fans on the field. Dickert climbed a platform and pumped his fist in front of the band. They’re piecing together a season that looks special, doing it all while their conference crumbles.

Sometimes, though, you have to smile. It’s easy when players like Lampkin are on your team.

“At the end of the day, you’ve gotta enjoy these moments because you work so dang hard for them,” Dickert said. “I’m just so proud of our players. It’s a players’ game. They went out there and did it, and credit to our coaching staff.”