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Washington State Football Defensive Preview
The Cougs have ridden an unexpectedly stout defense to a 3-1 start.
When Washington State’s Jake Dickert was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, he decided to hire Nevada’s defensive coordinator Brian Ward (Nevada, you may remember, bottled up Chase Garbers and the Bears in a 22-17 loss last year). Ward was, after all, an old coworker of Dickert’s: both coached the secondary at North Dakota State under Craig Bohl, whom many credit with turning NDSU into the FCS powerhouse it is today.
It seems that many people were not expecting such a quick turnaround for Washington State:
At Nevada, Brian Ward coached an opportunistic defense that ranked high in the FBS: top 10 in turnovers, and top 25 in sacks and interceptions. This year’s Cougs are currently 2nd in the Pac-12 in sacks, just one sack behind the conference leader Washington. Put another way, the Cougs are tied for 5th in the FBS for sacks.
With a shared coaching tree between Dickert and Ward, we can expect a lot of the same from the Wazzu and Nevada defenses: a 4-2-5 scheme, with 4 down linemen, a focus on getting after the quarterback, and a variety of coverages on the back end.
The strength of this team, in my opinion, is the defensive line. They have a ton of talent and a ton of depth, led by edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. (who, for what it’s worth, went by ”RJ” at Pac-12 Media Day, but I’ll go with what’s written on the roster). Former Oregon offensive lineman and current protector of Jared Goff on the Detroit Lions, Penei Sewell, has been absolutely dominating the NFL at offensive tackle. But it’s worth noting that the one sack he gave up in his 1376 snaps at Oregon was to this guy, Ron Stone Jr., who beat Sewell with a speed rush to the outside much like this one:
Wisconsin has an absolutely ridiculous offensive line, but they were no match for the strength and speed of Ron Stone Jr. and his ability to get off a block:
Despite being listed as an “edge” on the depth chart, he’ll line up all over the defensive line looking for a mismatch to take advantage of (although to be fair, that probably means he’ll still be on the edge against Cal).
On the other end is another solid defensive end with plenty of speed, Brennan Jackson. Here he tracks down Oregon’s running back as he tries to break to the outside:
However, the real strength of this defensive line is their depth, which allows them to play fresh all game long, where other defenses tend to wear down late in the game. Wazzu has a pair of impressive sophomores in Quinn Roff (a former walk-on) and Andrew Edson.
Roff was under-recruited as a defensive end in a linebacker’s body. He’s bulked up since his freshman year, but still plays with a high motor and plenty of speed:
Here he forces a fumble at a critical time during Wazzu’s upset of Wisconsin:
Similarly, true sophomore Andrew Edson uses his speed to get off blocks (sensing a trend yet?):
Wazzu doesn’t currently have any standout stars on the interior, but I do think they have one in the making: David Gusta. Despite being listed third on the depth chart at defensive tackle, I kept finding myself making highlights of Gusta.
Here he blows into the backfield and flattens the Wisconsin running back:
And here Gusta disrupts the screen pass on 4th down:
I also liked the run-stopping ability of one of the other defensive tackles, Amir Mujahid:
Cal is going to have to contend with a lot of speed from the Wazzu defensive ends to handle a strong Wazzu pass rush.
Okay, I have to start this section with a mea culpa. I watched Nevada’s entire 2020 season prior to my write-up last year on the Nevada defensive preview, and never once did I think to mention Daiyan Henley. I didn’t just omit him from my article entirely; I didn’t even have him in my notes! I had no idea this guy was going to turn into an impact player in 2021, and a complete stud in 2022. The Nevada linebacker followed his DC to Wazzu, where he’s already making a difference at linebacker.
The most obvious thing about Henley is his speed. I hate that I keep saying this because it sounds reductive, but it’s true. Henley has the speed to go sideline to sideline when tracking a running back out of the backfield, he quickly closes the distance to blow up screen passes, and he uses his speed to beat blockers on the pass rush.
Here he drops his shoulder to beat the block by the center and force a fumble on the quarterback:
Here Henley just flies into the backfield on a blitz:
But Henley is even solid in pass coverage:
If there’s one knock against Henley, it’s that he was pushed around a bit by a strong Oregon offensive line, and had trouble getting off blocks to make tackles at the point of attack.
Another complete surprise (to me, at least) is the middle linebacker Francisco Mauigoa.
He’s been a solid run defender so far this season. Here he correctly sniffs out the jet sweep:
He’s made an impact in the pass rush. Here he blasts the running back trying to block him so hard that he crashes back into his quarterback for a forced fumble:
And again, solid in pass coverage:
Note that this is an aggressive play by Mauigoa: he’s responsible for stopping the running back out of the backfield, but he forgoes that to try and (successfully) jump the route for the interception instead. It’s either a risky play or faith in your film study where you knew this was coming (and it looks to me like he’s reading Nix’s eyes the whole way instead of following the running back).
The unexpected breakout of Henley and Mauigoa have pushed Travion Brown into a backup role at middle linebacker, and he’s a solid defender in his own right:
Prior to the season I knew that Washington State would have some talented edge rushers, but the emergence of Henley and Mauigoa have contributed to an unexpectedly strong defensive front for Washington State.
Washington State is a little less stout in the secondary, and if there’s an advantage to found in this game, it’s likely here.
Washington State’s best cover corner is Chau Smith-Wade, who I’ve pretty much always been a fan of. I’m not really sure why, but I noticed he’s done his best work covering receivers using the trail technique (playing a step behind the wide receiver to take away intermediate routes, and relying on hard-hitting safeties defending anything over the top). One thing Smith-Wade does really well is timing his pass breakups. Too soon and this is pass interference:
And here Smith-Wade finds himself in perfect position for the interception:
One of the captains on the defense is the nickelback Armani Marsh. Marsh is solid in run defense and defending against the ubiquitous screen pass. Here he does a good job reading the wheel route and making a break towards the ball for the turnover on downs:
After those two, there’s a bit of a drop-off. On the other side of the field is the corner, Derrick Langford Jr. Langford has ostensibly struggled with some injuries this year, but he has not been playing well. Here he gets beat by the freshman Idaho receiver, Jordan Dwyer (someone I’ll probably cover in a preview here next season):
Both of Wazzu’s starting safeties this year are transfers: SS Jordan Lee (Nevada) and Sam Lockett III (Utah State/CCSF).
I don’t have much of an opinion on Jordan Lee, as I haven’t really seen enough to judge. Here he gets into the backfield to contribute to a TFL by LB Daiyan Henley:
The free safety is Sam Lockett III, who I am definitely not a fan of. Lockett is an ultra-aggressive safety, which can sometimes backfire. Here he defends a pass with physical coverage:
And this is probably one of my pet peeves (especially when you miss), but Lockett will opt for the big hit instead of the tackle, which opens you up for whiffing on a tackle when you don’t wrap up. Here he tries the take the CSU receiver’s head off, but instead merely bounces off the receiver:
I guess Lockett’s role in the defense is to try to intimidate the offense into not throwing those sorts of leading passes (or “hospital passes”) his way as opposed to actually defending those throws.
On the other hand, I think his backup, the redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks has shown a lot of promise (no relation to Elijah Hicks, which was the first thing I checked when he started showing up on the field).
Here Hicks does the exact same thing as Lockett, but this time, actually breaks up the pass with his hit:
Here Hicks does a great job tracking down the ball for the interception, although with a bit more experience he’ll realize it’s better to knock this one down on 4th down instead of pinning your team near their own endzone:
Cal’s offensive line will once again have their hands full against a defensive front that is currently top 5 in the country in sacks (ahead of even Notre Dame, although I don’t expect Wazzu to be that deadly). If Cal’s new-look offensive line can buy Jack Plummer time in the pocket, he should be able to capitalize. Ball security will also be a factor in this game, as Washington State will look to capitalize on turnovers to swing the game in their direction. Otherwise, expect another coin flip game on this one.
You can find my full clips here.