Roll On: Previewing The Washington State Defense

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images

Mike Leach is coming to town, which naturally means that the defense is the strength of the . . . hold on, sorry, I lost consciousness there for a second. Where were we? Oh, right, the Washington State defense!

There have been two constants in the Jeff Tedford era: Losses to USC and wins over Washington State. The 2002 Rose Bowl Cougars managed a 10 point win in Tedford's first year, but since then it's been all Cal. Joe Ayoob struggling at quarterback? Cal still wins. A game in the middle of the 2007 Cal-lapse? Cal still wins. A road game a week after losing Kevin Riley to an injury? Cal still wins.

Should that fact alone give you confidence as Cal treks for Pullman this week? Probably not. Jeff Tedford has a similarly dominating record over Arizona State, but that didn't mean much this year.

No, what should give you confidence is how dire Washington State has been this year on both sides of the ball. But that's getting ahead of myself. Let's dive in:

Personnel

Defensive Line: Sr. DE Steven Hoffart; Jr. DT Ioane Guata; Jr. DE Matthew Bock

Not a ton of production to talk about from WSU's linemen. The three starters have managed a combined eight tackles for loss and two sacks over the first half of the season. Hoffart and Bock are new starters after seeing partial action last year, while Guata is a JC transfer in his first year with the Cougars.

As is often the case in a 3-4, the linemen aren't racking up many stats. All three starters average about 2 tackles per game. Washington State probably won't be able to create pressure (even against our line!) by sending just linemen. But they won't just send three guys. Which brings us to . . .

Linebackers: Sr. BUCK Travis Long; So. SAM Cyrus Coen; Fr. MIKE Darryl Monroe; Jr. WILL Justin Sagote

The guy to watch is Long, who has piled up 7.5 sacks in half a season. Believe it or not, but the Cougs are currently 13th in the nation in sacks per game, and Long is responsible for nearly half of them. If Cal's pass protection can hold him at bay that defuses a huge weapon in Wazzu's arsenal.

Monroe has 3 sacks of his own and if defensive coordinator Mike Breske dials up a 5 man blitz Monroe will likely be that 5th man. Coen and Sagote have been piling up tackles like you would expect from linebackers, though they don't have the explosiveness that you'll see from Long and Monroe.

Secondary: Sr. CB Daniel Simmons; Jr. SS Deone Bucannon; Jr. FS Casey Locker OR Sr. Tyree Toomer; Jr. CB Damante Horton

If Long isn't the star of the defense then it's undoubtedly Deone Bucannon, who leads the team in tackles and interceptions. Three of his picks have come in the last two weeks against Oregon and Oregon State, so you already know what you need to worry about this week.

The secondary includes four returning starters and is the only unit of the defense that can be considered experienced. Locker is the only player amongst the 5 listed without significant starting experience, but evidently his talent allowed him to beat out Toomer for playing time because he's seeing more of the field. Look for Toomer in nickel packages.

This Season

  • 426 yards allowed (5.46 yards/play) in a 30-6 loss to BYU
  • 469 yards allowed (5.51 yards/play) in a 24-20 win over Eastern Washington
  • 460 yards allowed (5.60 yards/play) in a 35-27 win over UNLV
  • 531 yards allowed (6.63 yards/play) in a 35-34 loss to Colorado
  • 469 yards allowed (6.01 yards/play) in a 51-26 loss to Oregon
  • 370 yards allowed (4.51 yards/play) in a 19-6 loss to Oregon State

If you're looking to worry, you would note that after four performances that ranged from bad to awful, Washington State's defense has picked it up with two solid performances against above-average offenses in back-to-back weeks. Have fun trying to rationalize that Wazzu allowed more yards and yards/play to Colorado than to Oregon. College football is so weird.

Against the Run

3.98 yards allowed/attempt, 61st in the nation

A completely average running defense probably sounds beautiful to Washington State fans. Last year Cal rode the Sofele train to victory at AT&T Park, and I would imagine they'll try to do more of the same, especially now that C.J. Anderson and Brendan Bigelow are such big parts of the equation.

It's worth noting that WSU is still pretty vulnerable to the home run - they've allowed 10 runs of 40 yards or more. Can you say Brendan Bigelow?

Against the Pass

7.1 yards allowed/attempt, 71st in the nation

Again, essentially average. If you were a time-traveller, and also a jerk, you could have some fun going back a few months and telling Washington State fans that Mike Leach's defense would be perfectly average and watch smiles grow wide as they imagine the possibilities when combined with an air-raid inspired offensive explosion.

As Liffeytroll describes, you don't want to hang any passes up for Buchanon because he'll either kill the receiver or intercept the ball. As I mentioned above, the key matchup on this side of the ball will be the line vs. WSU's blitzing linebackers, and Maynard's ability to get rid of the ball before being crushed like he did against UCLA.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

11 turnovers forced (9 interceptions, 2 fumbles), 39th in the nation

Nine interceptions actually puts WSU high on the national rankings, but the Cougs haven't had any luck forcing or recovering fumbles so far this year - of the 8 fumbles Wazzu has forced, they've only recovered 2. Ouch. Let's not help them improve that unlucky ratio.

3rd Down

48.54 opponent conversion percentage, 108th in the country

This is one of the worst major conference 3rd down conversion percentages. That implies to me that Washington State allows lots of 3rd and short conversion opportunities, which is good news for the Bears. I know that every team is bad at 3rd and long, but we seem to excel at going even further backwards in those situations.

Red Zone

Opponent scoring percentage of 77.78%, 44th in the nation, Opponent touchdown percentage of 48.15, 31st in the nation.

But when the Cougs do get a 3rd down stop, apparently it tends to happen in the red zone. I'd guess that a compressed field is good news for a veteran secondary? Regardless, Cal solved their red zone woes in a big way against UCLA, but still rank 111th in the country in red zone touchdown percentage, which makes me weep. If this is a stat that converges to the mean I'll be thrilled.

Conclusions

Mike Leach and his staff have engineered a major renovation of Washington State's defense. A few JC transfers, a few new starters, and a new formation led to some inevitable growing pains early in the year. But two solid performances in Pac-12 play indicate that perhaps this isn't the same old Washington State.

That isn't to say that this is an intimidating defense. But they're doing a few things that we haven't seen in Pullman in quite a while. They have players with the strength and athleticism to get to the quarterback. They have some ball-hawks in the secondary. A good offense can't expect to waltz in and score easily.

And, is Cal even a good offense? One impressive game does not a season make. The hope is that the Cal coaching staff has found the formula to work around the offensive line troubles the plagued the team against USC and ASU, and Travis Long continually arrives a split second too late.

It shouldn't take too much to outscore a sputtering WSU air raid . . . but that's a preview for another day and another Man . . . BearCal.

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