An unexpected loss
MICAH HANNAM
MICAH HANNAM
Cougfan.com Senior Editor
Posted Sep 3, 2007


WASHINGTON STATE EXPECTED to win Saturday, evidenced by how they came out of the gate. Few others did. Just about all the pundits picked Wisconsin. Still, the Cougar loss was an unexpected one. The Wazzu offensive line was supposed to be a weakness. The Cougar d-line was supposed to be a strength. But in Madison Saturday, up was down and black was white.

The line had shown itself to be the strength of the D in fall camp but results on Saturday were, at best, mixed. WSU allowed 89 rushing yards by UW backs through three quarters before they wore out. They surrendered 84 total hashes on 21 carries to one of the nation's more lauded backs.

But the third down conversion allowed rate -- 11 of 15 -- was horrendous. The front four could muster almost no timely pressure. Every blitz was deftly picked up. Matt Mullennix (in particular) and Ropati Pitoitua had the best days, combining for 11 tackles. Aaron Johnson and Fevaea'i Ahmu combined for two assists total.

Wisconsin's o-line is one of the best WSU will face all year, arguably the best. So there's hope. But everyone involved on D, top to bottom, will need to do better if WSU is to reach their goals.

THE SECONDARY, NOT unexpectedly, had breakdowns. Three new starters are still learning and Leon Burtnett, David Walkosky and Bill Doba are trying to find the right balance between giving them too much to digest, and not enough.

But there were also indicators of better days to come. And the ceiling, particularly on Chima Nwachukwu and Devin Giles, is located somewhere North of the troposphere. Nwachukwu did have seven solo tackles (nine total) and forced a fumble. Giles had seven sticks (5 solo) and a pass breakup.

Give a QB as much time as did the Cougs Saturday and even a secondary peopled with All-Americans would look bad, it's just not possible to cover that long.

There were occasions the Wisconsin QB stood in the pocket, methodically went through his progressions and found -- no one. That's good coverage. There wasn't enough of it Saturday, but it isn't difficult to foresee the day there will be. And it might not be far off.

THE LINEBACKERS had an up and down afternoon. When the d-line occupied their counterparts, the LBs generally performed -- Greg Trent's 10 tackles led both teams. Kendrick Dunn has quicks, and logged his first collegiate sack. Andy Mattingly flashed potential. Cory Evans is indeed capable of developing into one of the league's better 'backers.

But Wisconsin tight ends also hurt WSU to the tune of 87 yards on 9 catches.

MEANWHILE, WHAT THE OFFENSIVE LINE did Saturday, couldn't be done. Not by conventional wisdom standards, anyway. But if Conventional Wisdom walked up to George Yarno and told him his line was destined to be overmatched, the guess here is Yarno would, after kicking CW in the teeth, scoff at such an absurd notion.

It would have, seemingly, been asking too much for a pair of o-tackles -- with nary a down of Pac-10 experience -- to excel against one of the Big 10's best defenses. In their house. But excel they did.

Sure, Vaughn Lesuma and Micah Hannam would like a few plays back but not even All-America linemen have perfect games. And sandwiched in, over and all around any miscues were plenty of moments of pure in-the-trenches heaven.

On more than one occasion, Lesuma could be seen driving defensemen downfield -- about 10 yards off the line scrimmage. A built-by-Hannam wall frustrated Wisconsin pass rushers early and often.

The veteran hosses were no less impressive. Kenny Alfred was, simply, a beast. Gone were any freshman growing pains. Bobby Byrd and Dan Rowlands both won more battles than not -- a lot more. And in convincing fashion, at times manhandling a vaunted Badger front.

And next chance you get, watch these hosses run. The athleticism on display Saturday was striking.

IT WAS HARD for anyone, save for those on the WSU sideline, to imagine Dwight Tardy would be the best running back on the field Saturday, not with a Badger Doak Walker semifinalist who rushed for 1,500-plus last year.

But he was.

Chris Ivory showed burst and a proclivity to make the right cut, sticking his face into the gut of the defense with authority.

AND THEN THERE is Alex Brink. The Cougar QB took charge of the leadership mantle this offseason and it was presented in microcosm Saturday. Standing tall in the pocket, the focus was downfield and unwavering, regardless of when pressure threatened. That wasn't always the case last year.

Brink took the first two Cougar drives 80 yards against a fresh, highly touted D. That is a dream start. Brink had three red zone opportunities. The Cougs scored three touchdowns.

Brink made smart, heady plays, both with arm and feet. He also made a few throws he did not last year.

Even a couple throws that missed their targets stood out. Granted, they were incompletions after all, and in the greater scheme of things that doesn't count for a whole lot -- except to illustrate when the situation called for it, Brink threw with heat. And any attempt to say otherwise is futile because it just ain't true.

Brink looked like a different quarterback in a lot of respects Saturday. The thinking here is that "it" has always been there, but mostly hidden below the surface. Untapped. The thinking here is also that Brink is lined up for a good year. Maybe a great one.

THERE ARE NO moral victories, it's a bottom line game. You either win or you lose. That doesn't mean, however, you stubbornly ignore the positives.

The loss Saturday recalled Stanford in '05. Trent Edwards that day could have taken his helmet off and polished it waiting for the Cougar pass rush. WSU ran 60 offensive plays in Madison. Wisconsin, 76. The Badgers held the ball for 10:33 of the third quarter, 10:54 of the fourth. All things equal, that's abysmal.

But this also isn't the '05 defense. The '07 vintage did not get pushed around like their predecessors two seasons ago.

They instead went against a very good offense and they didn't make plays -- they didn't hand-fight well enough, didn't get their pad level low enough. They didn't, on occasion, wrap up, and missed tackles they shouldn't have. But also give Wisconsin credit due.

The Cougs have three DTs and a 6-6, 260 pound DE up front. You're not going to have the Pac-10's best pass rush that way.

But there's also too much talent there not to get adequate pressure. And it's hard to imagine Doba and the Cougs won't get that deficit nulled out. Sooner would be better than later, though.

The first step comes on Saturday at Qwest.



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