Washington State defensive players last week heard a lot about the speed of Oregon’s offense.
But the Cougars aren’t exactly slugs. They’re more like snakes, according to a message that players received from a graduate assistant on Wazzu’s defensive coaching staff.
The undefeated Cougars liked the analogy, not because it struck them as new but because it struck them as true.
Kip Edwards, a former Missouri safety who spent a couple of years in the NFL, screened a video to players Friday night that illustrates a snake’s quick-strike ability, according to rush linebacker Dylan Hanser.
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“We were talking about playing fast, because all week it was like, ‘This fast (Oregon) offense,’ ” Hanser said. “And we’re a fast defense – just quick like a snake. He (Kipp) talked about a snake bite, and he had this video he brought up. (The message) was basically just, ‘Be as physical and mean as a snake. It will hurt to be bit.’ ”
The next day, defense led the charge as the Cougars (6-0, 3-0) defeated Oregon 33-10 in Eugene, repeatedly charging into the Ducks backfield and racking up 11 tackles for loss. Hunter Dale sprang for three of the TFL’s, Frankie Luvu added two, while Hanser and Dillon Sherman each notched his first career sack.
“It hit home – it resonated with the guys,” defensive assistant coach Roy Manning said of Edwards’ video. “It goes along with our playing style – aggressive and real sudden. The kids loved it.”
Already bowl-eligible, the Cougars begin the second half of their regular season Friday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) against California (3-3, 0-3) in a Pac-12 game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.
Cougar defensive coaches are big on mottoes, mantras and messages, some of which can be heard on Manning’s entertaining self-filmed Twitter videos. But Manning said they’re effective only to the degree they’re rooted in the team’s day-to-day actions.
“It’s not just string music,” he said. “It’s really who we are. It’s not a catch-phrase type of deal. With those Twitter videos, you have to remind yourself that it wasn’t intended for anyone except this team. It’s more, ‘Let’s talk about our identity, who we want to be. When we turn on the film, what do we want to see?’ ”
More and more players are buying into these ideas.
Dale, a fast-emerging junior nickelback, collected 10 tackles and a sack at Oregon. Luvu, a senior rush-LB from American Samoa who added nine tackles and a sack, is putting his own spin on the Cougars’ snake theme and has been dubbed “The Boa from Samoa.”
“That’s a good one for him,” coach Mike Leach said Tuesday.
And those young inside linebackers. Heading into the season, the Cougars’ defensive success seemed to hinge largely on the leadership and health of three senior LB’s – Peyton Pelluer, Isaac Dotson and Nate DeRider – partly because their backups were terribly young.
Well, all three seniors are out of the picture at the moment, but the Coug defense keeps on truckin', thanks partly to two second-year freshmen assuming the primary LB roles.
When Pelluer was lost for the season with a foot fracture four games ago, Jahad Woods came to the fore immediately and wound up making the clinching sack in an upset of USC. At Oregon, Dotson and DeRider both went down with undisclosed injuries, but Justus Rogers filled the breach capably in his first significant stretch of defensive playing time.
“Oh, man, it was awesome – a guy that definitely was ready when his number was called,” Manning said.
Rogers, like Dotson, played quarterback in high school, and he actually signed with Cougars at that position. He’s bringing a QB’s understanding of football in general to his linebacker role.
“He’s a really sharp kid,” Manning said. “Being a former quarterback – those guys tend to be extremely smart. Tell them something one time and they’ve got it. He went in there and flew around. For a guy that just got here a year ago, it was really cool to see.”
The stats are starting to tell the Cougs’ defensive story. They’re tied for ninth in the country with 8.1 TFL’s per game, and Hercules Mata'afa is tied for 12th individually at 1.7. In more general categories, the Cougs are sixth in pass defense and 11th in total D.
Perhaps most importantly to them, they’re tied for fifth in takeaways – snake strikes. Those too are baked into the team’s identity, Manning said.
“It doesn’t just happen: ‘Hey, let’s get two turnovers, let’s get three turnovers,' “ Manning said of Wazzu’s seven fumble recoveries and eight interceptions. “You’ve got to practice it every day. It’s not just one drill; it’s every single part of practice. Every single scout rep, our kids are kicking and clawing for that football. These things are not happening on Saturday because we’re overcompensating, or alerting up. We’re just doing what we do every single day.”