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Cougar football controls its own destiny, performance

Injuries, depth chart shouldn’t distract players from winning

Then+sophomore+wide+receiver+Tavares+Martin+Jr.+strong+arms+Cal+defense+%0Aas+he+fights+for+a+yard+gain+on+Nov.+13%2C+2016.
Then sophomore wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. strong arms Cal defense 
as he fights for a yard gain on Nov. 13, 2016.

Then sophomore wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. strong arms Cal defense as he fights for a yard gain on Nov. 13, 2016.

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

Then sophomore wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. strong arms Cal defense as he fights for a yard gain on Nov. 13, 2016.

BRADEN JOHNSON, Evergreen columnist

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Once an anchor to the Air Raid, the WSU football team’s defense is now making national head waves.

A 6-0 start, highlighted by a win over a top-five opponent, and a No. 8 ranking in the Associated Press’ top 25 poll certainly increase exposure, and the numbers speak for themselves.

The Cougar defense, ranked fifth nationally in takeaways, is allowing 18.5 points per game and opponents are converting 24.7 percent of third downs (20 of 81). It is easy to see why Sports Illustrated and Jon Wilner, of San Jose’s Mercury News, are linking Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch to the Oregon State head coaching vacancy.

“We don’t care who the opponent is,” senior safety Robert Taylor said. “On the defensive side, we’re just focusing on us. Having disciplined eyes in the backfield, penetrating gaps and being disruptive. That’s how we like to play the ‘Speed D.’ We think we can run with anybody.”

Both the statistics and versatility of the unit indicate the defense’s first-half success is far from a flash in the pan. Taylor and fellow sophomore safety Jalen Thompson arrived at WSU as cornerbacks, but were prompted to switch positions by Grinch.

“It helps that we’re affecting the passer at a higher rate, getting the ball out of his hand more quickly,” Head Coach Mike Leach said. “I think it both goes hand-in-hand, the D-line and the secondary involved.”

The real question is whether the defense can hold up for six more games.

Just to be clear, I remain far from convinced that the Golden Bears offense, which mustered 93 yards against No. 6 Washington on Saturday, is going to break the morale or resolve of the WSU defense.

Taylor was complimentary of Cal redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers, noting similarities between his pass-first approach and that of Eastern Washington sophomore Gage Gubrud. If you forgot, Gubrud lit up the WSU secondary for 474 yards last season under former Head Coach Beau Baldwin, who now serves as the offensive coordinator for Cal.

Regardless, the issue at hand is not the Golden Bears’ modified version of the spread offense. Rather, it’s the injury bug and depth, or lack thereof, at certain positions on the Cougar defense.

I understand why Leach refuses to discuss injuries, or the team’s weekly depth chart release with the press, and it goes way beyond just protecting the privacy of student-athletes.

If injuries and shrinking and depth at certain positions on defense aren’t acknowledged, there exists no excuse for players to fall back on, and no storyline pundits like me can write about it.

Make no mistake about it, the defensive unit as a whole is more banged up and bruised than this week’s official depth chart and absence of discussion on injuries indicate.

Redshirt senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer is still peddling around campus in a knee scooter and isn’t coming back anytime soon, and redshirt senior linebacker Isaac Dotson left the team’s win over USC in the first quarter and was limited on Saturday against Oregon. Fellow redshirt senior linebacker Nate DeRider suffered an injury in the third quarter of Saturday’s win and was removed from the depth chart on Tuesday.

“One guy goes down, next man up,” senior linebacker Dylan Hanser said of the defense’s mentality when injuries occur. “That’s your role as an underclassman, that’s your role as a backup- to be just as ready, if not more, than the starter. When your number’s called, you’ve got to be ready to step up for the team like that.”

It should be noted that Hanser’s rhetoric largely applied to his individual performance against the Ducks, as he came off the bench to record his first career sack.

Beginning with Friday’s game in Berkeley, the schedule aligns itself nicely for WSU to post a 9-0 overall record heading into a crucial three-game stretch to close the regular season.

But, with the team’s bye week not arriving until week 12, it puts the early success and nationwide recognition of WSU’s defense in perspective. That and the fact that the injury bug is more relevant than coaches and players hint at.

Grinch has been a magician, during his three years in Pullman, at positioning defensive players — none of whom on the 2017 roster were awarded more than three stars by recruiting databases coming out of high school — in the right spots to operate a fast-paced scheme predicated on takeaways. Looking ahead and stating the obvious, it’ll take more than just wits and grit to get through November.

As is the case for Friday’s game at Cal and moving forward, the only variable than can derail WSU, with the level it’s playing at, is itself.

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