University of Washington

Could defense, not offense, steal the show in Saturday’s Apple Cup?

Washington State has an all-time Pac-12 great at quarterback and two receivers capable of shredding a secondary.

And yet what’s the No. 1 thing everyone is talking about with the Cougars? Defense. Not how will Washington (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) defend WSU’s air-raid offense. No. It’s about how good the Cougars are when it comes to stopping everyone else.

Rarely, if ever, has defense been the strength of a Mike Leach team. It’s what makes this year’s Apple Cup so appealing. WSU (9-2, 6-2) enters the rivalry 11th in the nation in total defense while UW is fourth.

Huskies coach Chris Petersen is 3-0 against Leach and the Cougars with his offenses averaging more than 40 points in those games. With WSU’s defense is allowing less than 23 points a game, it presents the notion this year’s Apple Cup may not be a one-sided contest.

“It’s always been since Mike Leach has been there, about that offense,” Petersen said. “Everybody knows how prolific they are in terms of scoring points and moving the ball ... that hasn’t changed.

“The thing that has changed is the type of defense that they’re playing. It’s impressive and they’re doing a great job.”

WSU’s defense checks all the necessary boxes for those wondering.

Ranked 13th against the pass, the Cougars are allowing 174.28 yards per game. They’re 26th against the run with opponents rushing for 129.64 yards a contest.

The Cougars have feasted on turnovers. WSU has generated the third-most turnovers in the nation by being fourth in fumble recoveries and 15th in interceptions.

But the most telling statistic of all? WSU is second in the nation on third down. Opponents are only converting 25 percent of the time.

“They get off the field defensively on third down,” Huskies offensive coordinator Johnathan Smith said of the Cougars. “I think they’re the best defense on third down, so, that’s been a great formula for them and I think that’s why they’ve been winning a bunch of games.

“We gotta be able to execute and create some bigger plays.”

Leach took over the program in 2012 and, as expected, brought offense to Pullman. Defense is a different story.

From 2012 through 2015, the average Cougars’ defense was 92nd in the nation.

WSU finished 62nd last season before this year’s meteoric and surprising rise.

“I think they’re doing more. It’s another year in that system, I’m guessing. I don’t want to speak for their coaches,” Huskies offensive line coach Scott Huff said. “They’re doing more within their system. Because the guys are more comfortable, yeah, they can throw a lot at you.

“Yeah, it’s tough and my hat’s off to them. It’s a real pain in the butt.”

WSU’s improvement can be traced back to when the school hired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

Grinch, who is in his third season, spent three years at Missouri where he coached safeties. He came to Pullman and has since added a few wrinkles to the Cougars’ defense.

A trademark of this year’s group is the movements along the defensive line. The goal is provide enough of a distraction to create perpetual uneasiness for an offensive line.

“They’re really sound at what they do,” Huff said of the defensive line. “Moving around as much as they do, at least from my perspective looking at it, they know exactly what they are doing.

“They do cause a lot of confusion.”

Having a functioning scheme helps. So does having the personnel needed to operate it.

WSU’s biggest stars are redshirt junior Hercules Mata’afa and sophomore Jalen Thompson.

Mata’afa, a defensive lineman, might be the most dominant defensive player in the Pac-12 this season. His 9.5 sacks are tied for seventh nationally and Mata’afa’s 21.5 tackles for loss are the third-most in college football.

Thompson, a safety, leads the team with 63 tackles. His four interceptions are also tied for the 10th-most among Football Bowl Subdivision players.

Leach’s offenses are still scoring points but the big difference is there’s a defense equally as good.

It’s a reason why the Cougars are still in contention for the Pac-12 Championship game. A win sends WSU to Santa Clara while a loss would extend UW’s streak to five straight wins.

“As of right now, it certainly presents the most problems,” Huff said. “They’re really good.’

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark