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Previewing the Washington State defense

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Fresh off a road comeback win over Utah, Washington State will be looking to slow down the Bear Raid - something that no team has really manged to do so far this year.

Things to not let happen, part 1.
Things to not let happen, part 1.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State has had a very hit-and-miss defense under Mike Leach. Last year, they held USC to 10, National runner-up Auburn to 31, and RichRod's Arizona to 17. They also allowed 52 to Oregon State and 48 to Colorado State.

This year looks to be more of the same. Rutgers has played 5 games in total but the Scarlet Knights still haven't bettered the 41 they put up against the Cougs, despite games against Howard and Tulane. But Washington State has also slowed down (relatively speaking) Oregon and shut down Utah for 3 quarters on the road.

The bottom line is that this is a different defense than the one Mike Leach inherited at the beginning of his tenure. It can no longer be assumed that the Cougars will hemmorage yards and points to any half functional offense. But they aren't so good that they aren't capable of allowing 600 yards and 40+ points to the right team as well. The only question is which you will get. Is this my sneaky way of weaseling out of giving you a prediction for Saturday? Yes! Yes it is!

Starters

Tackle: Jr. Xavier Cooper ; Nose Tackle: Sr. Kalafitoni Pole ; End: Jr. Destiny Vaeao

The three starters listed above are all big, big dudes, as you would expect in a solid 3-4 defense. There isn't necessarily any one standout player, but Washington State has found success in depth by shuffling in a bunch of different linemen. Watch out for pass rush specialists Darryl Paulo and Ivan McClennan (a kind of LB/DE hybrid) in addition to the starters listed above.

Cooper is the most disruptive every down presence, and he is the most likely guy on the line to call for a double team - which means the line will have to watch out for linebackers blitzing to either side of him to take advantage of the attention he calls for.

BUCK: Jr. Kache Palacio ; SAM: Sr. Cyrus Coen ; MIKE: Jr. Darryl Monroe ; WILL: Jr. Jeremiah Allison

Lots of experience here. Justin Sagote is gone, with previous special teams defender Jeremiah Allison stepping into his spot. The other three are returning starters who collected a combined 203 tackles and 9 sacks last year. Like any good 3-4, all four of these guys are capable of blitzing, with the outside backers Palacio and Allison a bit more likely to do so.

CB: So. Daquawn Brown ; SS: Fr. Sulaiman Hameed ; FS: Fr. Darius Lemora ; CB: Fr. Charleston White

Last year Washington State enjoyed the services of three seniors, two all-conference performers, and one NFL first round draft pick (Deone Buchanon). This year? It's a little different.

Washington State's two-deep in the secondary includes three true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, a true sophomore, a redshirt sophomore, and a true junior. That is a simply stunning lack of experience . . . and it hasn't truly sunk the Cougs yet this year. Sure, the Rutgers loss was bad, but that was as much on the run defense as it was the secondary. For a secondary with 13 returning starts to be performing competently means either: a) Wazzu has some talent b)Wazzu's secondary coach is a genius c) Wazzu hasn't faced many good passing teams or d) all of the above.

Of course, it also helps that Wazzu has a veteran front 7 that has been getting good, consistent pressure on the quarterback. Everybody knows that pass rush is a secondary's best friend.

Daquawn Brown holds all of those 13 returning starts, and as such the sophomore is the ‘veteran' of Wazzu's secondary. WSU is lucky to even have him available after he was arrested and pled guilty to misdemeanor assault, but he wasn't suspended and is almost certainly the standout performer in the secondary, leading the team in tackles.

Lemora and Hameed are both first time players, and true frosh Hameed saw his first real action against Oregon. He displaced Taylor Taliulu from the starting lineup, but I would expect to see Taliulu in nickel and dime packages.

Charleston White is probably the corner that Cal will want to pick on the most, though the redshirt freshman has mostly held his own so far this year.

Season So Far

7.1 yards allowed/play in a 41-38 loss to Rutgers
4.2 yards allowed/play in a 24-13 loss to Nevada
4.2 yards allowed/play in a 59-21 win over Portland State
7.5 yards allowed/play in a 38-31 loss to Oregon
4.5 yards allowed/play in a 28-27 win over Utah

If a defense allows 4.5 yards/play or better over a full season, that defense would finish the year in the top 10 in the country. If a defense allows 7.0+ yards/play or worse over a full season, that defense would finish in the bottom 10. Do you remember what I wrote above about Wazzu's defensive inconsistency?

If you're an optimist Cal fan, you would note that Nevada has been offensively dysfunctional all season, Portland State is a bad FCS team, and Utah is a mediocre team that deceived us all by dominating a weak early schedule. Surely, Cal's offense against Wazzu will perform like Oregon or Rutgers did!

If you're a pessimist Cal fan, you would note that Washington State has made personnel changes in the secondary since the Rutgers loss, and has proceeded to hold every team they have played below their season average output. It's pretty easy to forgive one bad game if that ‘bad' game happened to come against the unstoppable Oregon death star.

Against the pass

2013: 7.7 yards/attempt allowed, 94th in the country
2014: 7.0 yards/attempt allowed, 64th in the country

This number is really surprising - with the talent Wazzu lost, and with the experience the secondary currently has, you would expect this number to go up rather than down. But the Cougars really shut down Nevada and Utah through the air - Travis Wilson had one of his worst games as a quarterback (40 passes for 165 yards? BLECH)

As I described above, Rutgers did well passing the ball, which led to the insertion of more talented, younger players who have mostly held their own. The one exception is that Washington State was absolutely torched by Marcus Mariota, to the tune of 21-25, 329 yards and 5 touchdowns. Do we think that Jared Goff is capable of that type of night? I don't know if he can manage that type of completion percentage, but I think he will get his yards.

In terms of pass rush - well, it's hard to say. Wazzu has 12 sacks, a very solid number. Three of those sacks came against Portland State, and SEVEN came against Oregon's broken offensive line. That means just two total in Wazzu's other three games.

Against the run

2013: 4.47 yards/attempt allowed, 81st in the country
2014: 4.14 yards/attempt allowed, 67th in the country

I would describe Wazzu's run defense as slightly above average, and very consistent - basically, what you would expect from a very veteran front seven. They've managed a solid 22 non-sack tackles for loss, and if they can avoid giving up the occasional big play on the ground their final numbers will probably look pretty good. Only Oregon really got much traction on the ground (Oregon's rushing numbers look much better once you remove the sack yardage) but Cal's ground attack isn't yet on Oregon's level yet.

Advanced stats

2013 S&P: 64th in the country
2014 S&P: 48th in the country (adjusted for schedule strength)

2013 FEI: 52nd in the country
2014 FEI: 82nd in the country (unadjusted for schedule strength)

We're about one or two more weeks away from me starting to feel like these numbers actually have some real value. As you might expect, the advanced stats are a bit less kind to Washington State than traditional stats because a) they don't count FCS games and b) FEI hasn't accounted for Wazzu facing probably the best offense in the nation in Oregon. There's not a ton to glean from these numbers other than to say that Washington State had an average-to-slightly-below-average defense last year, and will likely have a similar situation this year.

Turnovers

2013: 30 forced turnovers (16 interceptions, 14 fumbles), 10th in the country
2014: 4 forced turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 fumbles), 104th in the country

This might be the biggest issue for Washington State this year. Last year, Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton combined for 11 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. They were big time playmakers who helped clinch wins with key turnovers. Both are gone, and it's unclear if there are guys left who can make those kind of game-changing plays.

So far, Wazzu has struggled to force turnovers this year - four in total, with two of those coming against FCS Portland State. Turnover deficits were major factors in losses to Rutgers and Nevada, and if the Washington State defense had been able to force a few of their own the Cougars could very well be coming into this game with a record of 4-1 (or even 5-0!) rather than 2-3. Such is life on the margins, when every game against an FCS opponent ends with a single digit margin of victory or defeat.

Conclusions

This article is mostly about Wazzu, but briefly, let's make it about Cal. As weird as it seems, I've now reached the point wherein I expect Cal's offense to move the ball and put up points on all but the best defenses. Defenses like Northwestern and Arizona have actually looked pretty good in all games not against Cal.

In fact, I'm here to make a bold claim: RIGHT NOW, Cal may have the best offense in the Pac-12. Cal is currently 2nd in the conference in yards/play, behind only Oregon. The same Oregon that scored only 24 points at home against Arizona, and has so many injuries that they simply can't perform to the same level that they are accustomed to.

If Cal's offense is indeed worth mentioning in the same breath as Oregon's offense (which is still pretty good, even with a broken offensive line and maybe a broken quarterback) then Cal should be able to move the ball effectively against Washington State. Or really, against any defense in the conference with the possible exception of Stanford.

Hopefully Cal has enough receiver depth and play call wrinkles to take advantage of WSU's inexperience in the secondary in a way that only Oregon has managed to far this year. Hopefully Cal's explosiveness will result in plenty of big plays - an issue that has plagued WSU at times.

If there's enough of a run game to keep the defense honest, and if the line can do a better job protecting Jared Goff than Oregon did for Marcus Mariota, then the points will come - hopefully enough to outscore a very capable WSU offense. Based on the evidence from the last two weeks, expecting anything other than a last minute thriller is probably naive.