Points have always been plentiful.
Ditto for the cerebral quarterbacks.
The bountiful scheme’s still in place, too.
And the often-cantankerous coach.
But ask Kyle Whittingham why this year’s Washington State team is a handful, why these No. 19 Cougars (8-2, 5-2) have a real shot at thwarting a Washington-USC Pac-12 title game, Utah’s head coach points directly to the other side of the ball. The side not exactly synonymous with a Mike Leach-coached team.
“They’re among the best defenses in the Pac-12 and the country, and that’s really made them a compete football team,” Whittingham said at his weekly press conference Monday. “They’re hard to deal with.”
No. 19 Washington State at Utah<br>When • Saturday, 3:30 p.m.<br>TV • Pac-12 Network
Washington State will make life hard for the Utes Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Not only in air-raid, chuck-it-around offensive style Leach implores. The rise of the Cougars this year is buoyed by a defense that is among the conference leaders — also No. 10 overall in the nation — in several statistical categories.
Wazzu is the No. 2 overall defense in the Pac-12 (297.5 yards per game), has the third-best rushing defense (136.4 yards per game), the second-ranked passing defense (161.1 yards per game) and the best pass defense efficiency rating in the Pac-12 (53.3 percent of passes allowed).
Whittingham said the Cougars are, appropriately, “very stingy.”
Junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa is tied for the league lead in sacks (6.5). Senior linebacker Frankie Luvu is tied for sixth with 5.5 sacks himself. Mata’afa also leads the Pac-12 with 16.5 tackles for loss in 2017. In the 24-21 win over Stanford, the Cougars held Stanford superstar running back Bryce Love to a season-low 69 yards on 16 carries.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is considered one of the top young defensive minds in the game and has also played a large role in Wazzu’s turnaround.
“The way they fly around,” Whittingam said. “They’re undersized. Their front guys are, you know, 250, 260, 270. They’re not big 300-pound guys. They’re very active and they’re very hard to get blocked, because they’re so slippery and slant and move on virtually every snap.”
“You just don’t want to be a sitting target playing in front of [big offensive lines,” Leach said.
Utah sophomore running back Zack Moss said he and his fellow running backs were able to break down film of the WSU’s first half against Stanford Monday morning.
“Like coach said, they’re real undersized, quick guys, kind of like Arizona State’s guys,” said Moss, who is coming off a career-high 153-yard outing against UCLA. “They’re real nasty and have a lot of energy and always run around to the ball. It’s going to be a good test for us.”
Moss said he’s in the process of studying tape of teams that have had success running the ball against the Cougars. He pointed to USC’s 163-yard outing on the ground, although WSU did hand the Trojans their first loss of the year that night in Pullman, Wash., in late September.
“They play exceptionally hard,” Whittingham added. “All 11 hats are running to the football every snap.”
Utah’s long-awaited in-conference breakout game took place over the weekend, as quarterback Tyler Huntley accounted for 327 total yards and four passing touchdowns. That, plus a career night by Moss, has all the makings for getting on track late in the year. Unfortunately for the Utes, however, Washington State stands in the way this week.
And next week, Utah has trip to Seattle booked to face the No. 1 overall defense in college football in the No. 9-ranked Huskies.
“The degree of difficulty definitely gets higher, we understand that,” Whittingham said. “The yards are going to be tougher to come by. It was just great to see us have a game where we ran the football like we need to [against UCLA].”
They’ll need to again this weekend. Like Whittingham said, it just won’t be nearly as easy.
Rising to the occasion<br>• Washington State’s defense is ranked No. 10 in the country in total defense (297.5 yards per game).<br>• The WSU Cougars also have the third-best rushing defense (136.4 yards per game), thesecond-ranked passing defense (161.1 yards per game) and the best passdefense efficiency rating in the Pac-12 (53.3 percent of passesallowed).<br>• Junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa leads the Pac-12 in tackles for loss in 2017 with 16.5.