PULLMAN – The record-breaking performance of Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday drew much of the attention last Saturday at Oregon, and rightfully so. Moving forward, however, most of the focus on the Cougars may be directed at the defense – for better or worse.
After hanging with the nation’s elite in the first four weeks of the season, WSU’s defense has been in a freefall the past four weeks. The Cougars have allowed season highs in total yards four straight games, and opponents have scored 52 or more points in three of the past four games.
The good news for the WSU defense? The Cougars have a bye week, so they have extra time to study up on their next opponent.
The bad news for the WSU defense? The Cougars’ next opponent is Arizona State, one of the top offensive teams in the nation.
“We have a lot of problems sometimes with communication on defense … that’s something the bye week will help us with,” WIL linebacker Justin Sagote said Thursday during the weekly media session with players.
Asked to specify some of the communication problems, Sagote said, “Safeties not talking to us (linebackers). Linebackers not talking to each other, not telling the defensive line where to go.”
Safety Deone Bucannon said communication breakdowns “possibly” could be one of the key issues haunting the defense lately, but he seemed more concerned about other matters.
“I feel early on, we had a lot of faith in each other,” he said. “We knew the person next to us was going to do their job and we were going to do our job. But kind of the middle of the season, a little bit got lost. I felt like a lot of people were trying to do too much. Trying to not just do their job.
“That’s something the coaches always harp on. That’s what we have a big focus on. We had a big focus on that last week, and we’re going to have a big focus on that this week.”
That news might not be particularly comforting to Cougars fans, because Washington State gave up season highs of 62 points and 719 yards at second-ranked Oregon. Also, Arizona State – WSU’s guest next Thursday on Halloween night (7:30, ESPN), runs a hurry-up offense that has generated high numbers of explosion plays, similar to Oregon.
Like the Ducks, Arizona State can overwhelm teams with their offensive talent and rapid-fire plays.
“Sometimes, the (defensive) calls don’t get out there,” Bucannon said. “In Oregon’s case, they had a real up-tempo offense. Not every time you can get all (the calls) you want on a certain play.
“That’s the advantage of their offense. As a safety … I need to say the checks louder and faster.”
Bucannon agreed with Sagote and center Elliott Bosch – the other player made available Thursday – that the bye week was welcome after eight straight weeks of games. The Cougars did not practice this week until today, (look for Cougfan.com’s practice report later this evening.)
“It just feels good to get your legs back,” Bucannon said. “It’s good to have extra time to prepare for what’s coming up.”
“We got a lot more film study in,” Sagote said.
“It was kind of the perfect time of the season,” Bosch said. “Everyone can kind of rest a little bit, get their bodies back, get mentally prepared for the end of the season.”
The Cougars (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) almost certainly will go to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 if they win two of the four games left on their schedule. All four remaining opponents have winning records, starting with the Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1), the Pac-12 South Division leader. Arizona State was 26th in voting in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll.
“They’re an explosive offense,” Bucannon said. “They have good technique and they have playmakers.”
Arizona State has won eight of the past nine meetings with WSU, including a 46-7 rout in Tempe last season. Bosch said the revenge factor is a “big” motivator for the Cougars.
“We’re going out there trying to prove something,” he said. “Last year, we fell short big-time.”
Turnovers could be huge in this game. The Cougars rank among the nation’s best with 19 turnovers gained (including 11 interceptions), but they rank among the nation’s worst with 25 turnovers lost (including 19 interceptions thrown). Thus, WSU is minus-6 in turnovers, compared to plus-6 for the Sun Devils, who have made nine interceptions and thrown only seven.
“We turn the ball over too much,” Bosch summed up.
More than a few of WSU’s turnovers resulted from players trying to force a big play. Bucannon, who says the Cougars “have the talent to compete with anybody,” wants his teammates to trust their talent.
“We don’t need to make any miraculous plays,” Bucannon said. “We just need to out there and play strong, tough football.”