PULLMAN – Three games ago, it was UCLA’s Demetric Felton catching a short pass over the middle of the field and galloping away from a pack of anthracite jerseys for a 94-yard touchdown.
Two games ago, it was Utah’s Samson Nacua flying past Skyler Thomas, beginning his seam route well in front of the Washington State nickel and catching Tyler Huntley’s throw with a body length’s distance between Nacua and Thomas. The 52-yard score was even easier than it looked.
Last time out, it was Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk reeling in a ball on a 15-yard post pattern, curling back toward the sideline and outstriding corner Marcus Strong to the end zone to polish off an 86-yard catch-and-run.
The problems have been blatantly obvious for Washington State and its embattled defense. Solving them, on the other hand, is an ongoing process the Cougars have found to be painfully difficult.
It isn’t the base hits – but the home runs – that have buried WSU, head coach Mike Leach explained in Tempe, Arizona, last Saturday. The Cougars aren’t conceding 47.7 points per game in Pac-12 Conference play – nine more than 11th-place Oregon State – because they can’t stomach the jabs and minor body shots being thrown by their opposition. But they’re definitely giving up too many haymakers.
An optimist would say that if WSU had eliminated Felton’s long TD in a 67-63 loss to the Bruins, or stopped Aiyuk in his tracks in the third quarter of a 38-34 loss to the Sun Devils, the Cougars might be 5-1 at the midway point of the season and still in an ideal spot to compete for the Pac-12 North.
But the big plays have had massive ramifications for a WSU team that instead sits 3-3 and enters Saturday’s 4 p.m. homecoming game against Colorado (3-3, 1-2) desperately hoping three straight losses don’t become four.
“If there was an easy answer to eliminating explosives, we would’ve done that three, four weeks ago,” WSU interim defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni said. “I think the easy answer is you have your eyes in the right place, you read your key, you’re in the right place, then you execute your job, whether it’s making a tackle, getting a hand on the ball.
“That’s the biggest issue. It’s just not executing what you’re supposed to do and it leads to a big play. When 10 guys are right and one guy’s wrong, it’s going to be a big play. When nine guys are right, two guys are wrong, it’s definitely going to be a big play.”
If the Cougars are to stop big-armed quarterback Steven Montez and his fleet of talented receivers – one that includes Tony Brown, K.D. Nixon and Laviska Shenault Jr. – they’ll have to be more congruent as a unit and make the plays that prevent a 15-yard pickup from being an 85-yard pickup.
They’ll also have to be more opportunistic. While Leach has said it’s “debatable” WSU had a takeaway last week – a recovered fumble was overturned because Pat Nunn was out of bounds – the Cougars have gone 10 quarters since their last forced turnover. This week, coaches have stressed the importance for players to “be around the ball” more than they have.
If the Cougars can pounce on a few fumbles or intercept a few passes, the changes of possession could be substantial, because WSU’s offense – which Leach would insist still hasn’t peaked – is among the nation’s best, scoring 43 points per game (seventh) and averaging 538.7 yards per game (fifth).
Leach’s Air Raid versus Mel Tucker’s defensive secondary seems to be a matchup that should favor the Cougars, with the Buffaloes allowing more than 300 passing yards per game.
But toting the Pac-12’s best offense, and on the flip side its worst defense, poses some potential problems for a college football team. At what point does one unit start to blame the other, or feel that it has to overcompensate?
That’s natural, Leach said, but he doesn’t believe it’s something that’s infiltrated his team and it’s something the Cougars are careful to guard against.
“Sometimes, and you’ve got to fight against that, you can’t have that,” Leach said. “Because anybody that thinks they’re special. If they’re as special as they think they are, they can go ahead compensate. Everybody’s got whatever they have to give out there and you’re trying to get all of that, but anybody that gets selfish like that, if you have a selfish team you’re going to have some problems.”
After all, this is a team that needs to resolve the problems it has, rather than watch them multiply.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.