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John Blanchette: On this day, defense defined the Cougars’ heart

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 29, 2018

PULLMAN – For nearly the entire second half Saturday, the wait was on for The Drive That Would Define the Season.

Yes, yes, it’s still September. Defining waits for no man.

And surely Washington State’s brilliant, your-show-of-shows offense would be equal to the task, no matter what the field position – down a field goal to a salty opponent favored by a couple points with 30,088 expectant customers disinclined to have their homecoming weekend soured.

But there was that first opportunity submarined by an epidemic of dropped passes – a dropidemic, if you will – and the second blocked field goal attempt in as many weeks (a blockidemic?). And a second opportunity that petered out after two first downs. And a third derailed by a sack, and a fourth derailed by a drop and a sack. Blocking, catching, throwing, running – all suddenly a mystery.

Failure and frustration, in every combination.

Now, OK, the Cougars eventually made a happy 28-24 escape over Utah thanks to some true magic. And there wasn’t a single fluky element in Easop Winston Jr.’s nifty combination of ballroom dancing and parallel parking that produced the game-winner. Still, counting on 89-yard home runs …

Extracting rabbits from silk hats is no way to brand a season, is it?

But it turns out we were looking for Wazzu’s telltale heart in the wrong place. Because it was there all along. It was just the defense doing the defining.

This is all too easy to overstate, of course. The Utes are not exactly state of the pyrotechnic arts when it comes to scoreboard fireworks. They arrived in Pullman 111th among 129 FBS teams in scoring – the offense responsible for all of 17 points against opponents in their own weight class. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has thrown four touchdown passes this season – all of them against Weber State. He managed to complete his first four passes on this afternoon, in part because the Cougs were signaling for the defibrillator, having fainted because he was actually attempting them.

But the Utes are smash-mouth rugged and Huntley is a tricky chase on the run-pass option, and the fact is the visitors pretty much had their way up and down the Martin Stadium turf en route to a 24-21 lead.

And then they didn’t.

It’s at this point where teams demur when prodded about any strategic epiphanies and just chalk it up to playing stouter and – most vague of all – playing together. And the Cougs slip into this sort of teamspeak a lot, too.

But guess what? Adjustments were made!

“Shout-out to the coaches for putting us in the right positions in the second half,” said linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “They made some key halftime adjustments, little things against certain formations. We started to bring more edge pressure on both sides – and then we started tackling a little bit better, too.”

Well, yes. That’s also good strategy.

And it showed up on every Utah possession after the Utes took the lead. Dillon Sherman and Taylor Comfort sandwiching Huntley on a third-down keeper. Will Rodgers III and Pelluer holding the quarterback to back-to-back 1-yard gains. Sean Harper Jr. and the next-man-up player of the game, Deion Singleton, with big stops when the Utes had a great situation at midfield. Defensive end Logan Tago – who occasionally could be found lining up in the middle – was the man on two important third downs on Utah’s final chance.

But the, ahem, defining play might have come the possession before, with both the score and the clock conspiring against the Cougs. The Utes had second-and-5 at their 42 and split three receivers right, then shifted a tight end from right to left – apparently oblivious to Pelluer wagging his tail in the vacated spot.

“That left me one-on-one with the back,” Pelluer said. “I knew that coming off the ball, Huntley likes to scramble upfield. I jabbed the running back inside and then just tried to attack his upfield shoulder and not let him escape.”

He did better. He sacked Huntley for a 14-yard loss.

Wazzu’s defense obviously had its moments in the 3-0 start to the season, even if it was against the Academy of the Overmatched. It then pretty much wilted in the second half last week against USC and continued to reel for another half here. Since everyone left on the schedule is more adept at this offense business than the Utes, this was a good time to find some identity – even if it was just a start.

“Last year, I think we had eight turnovers against them,” Pelluer recalled. “I don’t think we had one tonight. So as great as this win was, we have higher standards. We made key plays when we had to, but not enough to separate us the way we wanted.”

Then again, there’s no shame in settling for a rescue. It still lets you define yourselves as a winner.

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