BY Adam Lewis 01:01PM 10/12/2012

No corpses apparent in Cougars defense

Coach Mike Leach’s original choice of scolds has overshadowed the fact that the Cougars are actually playing defense that is bringing no shame to the campus.

Senior linebacker Travis Long led a more-than-respectable effort Saturday against Oregon State. / Greg Davis Photography

Washington State’s 19-6 loss to Oregon State prompted Mike Leach to publicly lambast his lagging offense and the few uninterested seniors remaining on his roster Monday.

The rant and subsequent national coverage surrounding it (Who’s Sports Page Northwest and why haven’t I met this Adam Lewis guy?) unintentionally overshadowed one of the best performances from a Cougars defense in more than five years.

Ranking just 91st nationally in points allowed (30.3 points per game) suggests WSU’s herculean effort against OSU was an aberration.

A closer look at the statistics speaks to the contrary.

The Cougars are ninth in the country with 19 sacks entering Saturday’s game with Cal (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12). In 2011, WSU recorded just 17 sacks the entire year.  Mike Breske’s 3-4 defense is tied with Arizona State for first in the Pac-12 with 49 tackles for loss.

If the first half of the season is any indication, WSU players learned the former Montana defensive coordinators’ schemes faster than they picked up the Air Raid Offense.

“I think that they’ve gotten better and better,” Leach said Monday when asked about his defense. “I think after our Colorado game they kind of focused in and recommitted and then kind of progressed. We’re starting to get some leadership emerge there.”

Since dropping the conference opener, the Cougars  surrendered a below-Ducks-average 44 points to Oregon before Saturday’s gutsy performance in front of 47,000 screaming fans in Corvallis.

Linebacker Darryl Monroe said his inexperienced group is refining  Breske’s schemes as they turn their attention toward a Cal team that features Keenan Allen at wide receiver (41 catches, 467 yards) and Isi Sofele at running back (374 yards, two touchdowns). Sofele rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown when a mediocre Cal team drubbed WSU 30-7 last year in San Francisco.

Last week, WSU held Mike Riley’s outfit to 270 yards of total offense and intercepted Sean Mannion three times despite losing the time of possession battle 39:15-20:45. OSU ran 31 more offensive plays and entered the red zone six times thanks to costly turnovers from Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel.

Monroe said the surprise performance came after the entire defense committed to one thing no senior at WSU would ever want to do — study.

“We were always in the film room. We were always meeting with each other.  We were always passing notes, taking notes and building on our preparation,” he said.  “I think that made a big difference in our defensive performance.”

According to the redshirt freshman, defensive linemen numerous times called out OSU’s plays before the snap based on their offensive formation. He said the extra study sessions began early in the week when the defensive coaching staff suggested players change their preparation strategy.

So far, so good.

Leach also made a point to single out a trio of defensive players responsible for holding opposing offensives to four yards-per-carry through six games. Senior linebacker Travis Long is tied for the most sacks in the country with 7.5.

Unlike the past three seasons, he’s not the only one contributing.

“You’ve got Travis Long who’s a real focused guy that leads that group,” Leach said.  “(Ioane Guata’s) really emerged as a leader. Gauta’s been a captain on virtually every team he’s ever been on. You can see why and he’s doing some good things out there. Justin Sagote (shows) great effort.

“We got really lucky with those two JC guys.”

The uptick is timely Saturday night, given what took place the last time the Golden Bears and Cougars played in Pullman.

WSU’s defense has come a long way since this egregious two-hand touch exhibition during a 20-13 loss on Nov. 6, 2010 (Skip to 1:00 mark).

Facing a third-and-20, Cal wide receiver Jeremy Ross caught a five-yard screen from Brock Mansion, then dragged six Cougars defenders more than 10 yards to pick up a back-crunching first down.

Part poor coaching, part absence of talent, the failed rugby scrum epitomized  WSU’s four-year run ranking near or at the bottom of every major statistical defensive category in the country.

Has progress been made?

Ask Sunday.


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