SWARMING COUGAR D
PULLMAN -- A good game turned into a long game Saturday night for Washington State, but along the way while sitting in Martin Stadium’s press box, a thought occurred to me: The Cougars could be next year’s Stanford. OK, maybe not No. 5-ranked and all that. But darned good and a tour de force on many Saturdays as the Cardinal have been this season?
What is vastly underrated about Stanford is its defense. The Cardinal have a formidable pass rush, don’t allow many yards after the catch and hit hard.
There’s a reason Stanford rates among the country’s top 20 in three major categories – total, scoring and rushing defense.
Something similar could be said about Washington State next season. The Cougars showed signs of a good defense Saturday, against an offense that is among anyone’s top 10, and a quarterback who is among everyone’s No. 1 in Andrew Luck.
During the first half, the Cougar defense was impressive. They held the Cardinal to 133 yards and gave up just one drive of decent length.
“The first half, we could have ended it there, and besides the score, I would have been happy,” WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball said.
In the end, Stanford got its yards (475) and points (44), but that more had to do with the Cougars’ offense failure to move the ball. Even the best defenses need rest, and the Cougars received little. When a team as physical as Stanford gets too many shots at a defense, the result is predictable.
“We probably defended them as well as anyone has all year in the first half,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “I think we got worn down.”
But getting back to WSU-as-Stanford in 2012, the Cougars could have a defense as salty as Stanford, and not long from now. Of the 11 starters Washington State put on the field Saturday, 10 are expected to be back next year. The only senior is linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
Athletic plays made by those such as cornerback Damante Horton, who intercepted Luck on the second play of the game when the WSU sophomore was left alone on an island, are worth remembering for the future. There should be many more like that from a secondary that starts three sophomores.
Wulff talked about how veteran and physical Stanford appeared to him. Well, put another year of experience and weight on that defense, and it should give every Pac-12 team – including Oregon – a run. C.J. Mizell and Deone Bucannon are true sophomores. Kalafitoni Pole is a second-year freshman. Travis Long a junior. The list goes on -- and includes true freshman Chester Sua, who made his first-ever start Saturday, in place of injured Sekope Kaufusi (shoulder), at strongside linebacker. "He did very well and you would have never known he was a true freshman going up against them. I'm really proud of him. He played very well," said WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball.
But beyond the youth that will grow into itself, the Cougars defense should get a lot of help from its offense, which it didn’t Saturday. Now, you shouldn’t completely write off what happened against the Cardinal, because WSU didn’t run the ball well, and the receivers dropped far too many passes.
That’s a problem.
But some of the trouble, and maybe more than some, was due to the return of junior quarterback Jeff Tuel. He was as rusty as a decade-old nail. Perhaps Washington State could have found a better spot for Tuel’s first action in six weeks than Stanford, but maybe it was for the best. Tuel looked out of sorts, but anyone who has watched his growth over three years knows Saturday’s performance was an aberration.
“We knew there was going to be some issues, but the only way to grow is by playing,” Wulff said of Tuel. “I’m very confident that he’ll respond.”
Tuel is going to have better days this season, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll be among the best senior quarterbacks in the country next season. For the purposes of this column, Tuel in 2012 is Andrew Luck Lite.
What the Cougars are building around Tuel ought to lead to much better days on offense next season, too. There are plenty of decent offensive linemen in the pipeline, a good group of receivers led by a star in Marquess Wilson.
It’s unlikely Washington State can approach Stanford’s brute force on offense, but the pieces are there to do some damage.
Of course, the Cougars are never going to look anything like Stanford in the all-gray uniforms they wore Saturday. My high school-aged daughter Meghan said, “Dad, they look like they’re wearing concrete!”
Maybe that was the problem.