If you observe Washington State and their success under Mike Leach, it looks eerily similar to Sonny Dykes production (excluding 2013) thus far at Cal. His first year was abysmal, second year showed progress, third year declined and by his fourth year the program sky-rocketed to the tune of nine wins. What was the biggest difference maker for Mike Leach? His defense.
The Washington State Cougars have quickly become the iron clad example of an “air raid” based team that plays above average defense. The collective envy from all of the Cal fans is deserved and the results on the field so far are unsurprising. The Cougars have worked their way to a top-25 ranking and might even have a shot at the Pac-12 North title with a win over bitter rival Washington.
In 2015 Mike Leach made a crucial addition to his team by adding former Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch as his defensive coordinator. The impact was noticeable immediately. Washington State improved drastically against the pass, even breaking the top 25 in passing S&P+. While their defense has slipped from that high mark last season, it shows the Cougars were successfully able to reinvent themselves and take that step so many Cal fans are waiting for Dykes to take. Let’s take a deeper look at a few of the Cougars defensive units.
The Cougars have found a new identity this season, ranking in the top 25 of rushing yards allowed. This is in large part due to the experience they returned on the defensive line from last season. Hercules Mata’afa returns from his massive freshman campaign that saw him wreak all kinds of havoc in the backfield. So far this year, he has nine and a half tackles for loss including three sacks and redshirt freshman Nnamdi Oguayo has created a nice tandem.
The Cougars play a bend not break style of defense that ranks near equal to the national average in regards to blitzes, therefore they rely on their defensive front to collapse the pocket. This matchup in particular feels like where the Bears have to win with their experience at offensive line and Davis Webb’s ability to exploit the blitz when Washington State eventually frees one of their safeties up. If the Bears can maintain some level of success running the ball, which should be a challenge, that can open up crucial lanes through the air for the Bears offense.
Anyone remember Chandler Leniu? He originally signed his letter of intent to Cal and at the last minute couldn’t pass academically so he flipped back to Washington State. He performed quite well last year at linebacker and was in line to assume a starting role or first reserve position this fall. He ended up leaving the program and headed back to Riverside community college hoping to transfer back into another division one program at linebacker. Keep your eye on Cal making a move there.
The Cougars linebacker unit is led by junior Peyton Pelluer. He leads the team in tackles and is absolutely a player to watch when the Bears are on offense. Frankie Luvu has also had a positive impact against the run, making five tackles for loss and the Cougars lean on Pelluer, Luvu and their defensive line to help slow down strong running teams.
The Cougars linebackers are susceptible to the pass and for the first time in many games Cal actually has the advantage in regards to sheer talent on the field. It will be interesting to see if Melquise Stovall can use his speed to exploit the Cougar linebackers underneath.
While it shouldn’t come as much surprise given Grinch’s coaching pedigree, Washington State’s strongest unit is their safeties. They use their safeties to hurry the quarterback, help stop the run and make a high volume of plays behind the line of scrimmage. When the safeties play back, they protect against big pass plays but do have a tendency to surrender a lot of yards through the air.
The Cougars only saw one of their key contributors from last season leave and have a tremendous amount of experience at both corner and safety. Shalom Luani is one of the better players the Cougars have and he makes plays all over the football field. He has registered two sacks, a ridiculous 8.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions along with six passes defended so far this season. That frees up Isaac Dotson, another safety to control the part of the field Luani vacates and he does a solid job at doing so. Sophomore Darrien Molton is the lockdown corner for the Cougars and is one of the better young corners in the Pac-12. He most likely above anyone will be tasked with defending Chad Hansen and that will be one of the more exciting match-ups of the evening to keep an eye on.
The fourth installment of protege vs mentor takes place in Pullman Saturday night and the biggest question is which Cal defense is going to show up. The Cougars have the edge defensively and if they can slow down the Cal offense once or twice, it might be enough to put the game out of reach. However, Cal’s offense thrives through the air and one more week of improvement for Chad Hansen could be a matchup nightmare for the young Darrien Molton.
The Bears could decide to go with a game plan that looks more similar to what we observed against San Diego State, given Washington State’s success so far this season against the run. Couple that with the struggles of Khalfani Muhammed as well as Tre Watson last week, you might see Webb air it out 70+ times. If that is the case, expect the Bears to rely on the strength of their offensive line to keep Davis Webb upright and expect a lot of different looks from the Washington State safeties throughout the night.