No. 14 WSU brings improved defense into Apple Cup
Washington State has been turning heads with its offense for years and this season the defense has been doing the same.
The 14th-ranked Cougars are hoping that improved stopping power will help them flip the script in the Apple Cup, where Washington State is playing for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game while No. 15 Washington is merely hoping to play spoiler.
Archrival Washington has used a superior defense to win the past four Apple Cups. The Huskies outscored Washington State by an average of 39-14 in those four games.
This year might be different with the Cougars (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) boasting a much better defense than in years past, including a line that coach Mike Leach said is the most improved unit on the team.
"We're older for one," Leach said. "Our pad level is lower. We transition quicker. We are better with our hands."
The Cougars rank 11th in the nation in total defense, allowing 303 yards per game, and lead the nation with 94 tackles for loss.
They're anchored by Hercules Mata'afa, Daniel Ekuale and Nnamdi Oguayo.
"Daniel is a big, thick, traditional defensive tackle," Leach said. "He's playing some of his best football right now."
The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Mata'afa is a unique player, Leach said.
"He's smaller and quicker than most guys who play that position," Leach said. "But he's strong enough to hold up."
The combination of the two "gives you a fastball/change-up quality," Leach said.
Mata'afa has been a revelation this season. He leads the Pac-12 with 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks.
The junior from Lahaina, Hawaii, was named Pac-12 defensive player of the week for his performance at Utah, where he recorded five tackles for loss, including three sacks, plus one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
"Hercules Mata'afa is probably the best in the league," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game.
Other Washington State defensive players are fans of Mata'afa's play.
"He's a beast, man," linebacker Justus Rogers said.
"He makes this whole defense a lot better," safety Robert Taylor added.
Of course, Washington (9-2, 6-2) remains pretty stout on defense itself.
The Huskies rank No. 4 in total defense (271.3 yards per game). They give up just 168.4 passing yards per game.
But Washington hasn't faced a passing offense quite like the Cougars' Air Raid this season, Leach said.
"Schematically, the teams they've played haven't thrown it a lot this year," said Leach, whose offense is No. 3 nationally and averages 375.3 yards per game, "They hadn't played a lot of teams that are real determined to throw it a lot."
Utah's 293 passing yards were the most Washington has given up this season.
Washington is a nine-point favorite to win the Apple Cup in Seattle. If Washington State wins, the Cougars advance to the conference title game against Pac-12 South winner Southern California. A Washington win would send Stanford to the title game.
POLL BUSTERS: The Cougars have a chance to finish the regular season unbeaten against Top 25 opponents. Washington State has beaten No. 11 Southern California, No. 20 Stanford and No. 25 Boise State this season.
TURKEY AND TEN-PINS: Washington State will hold a traditional Thanksgiving feast at a bowling alley in Pullman. As is their custom, the Cougars will go bowling Thursday then board a charter flight for Seattle the next day. "If you want to see some of the finest bowlers on earth, go to Zeppoz on Thursday," Leach said. "You'll see some big old people thundering down the bowling alley tossing balls."