Riding his signature air-raid offense, second-year head coach Mike Leach has his Washington State Cougars in position to make their first bowl game in a decade.
With the hire of Leach at Washington State in December 2011 came expectations of a return to competitiveness in the Pac-12, to be achieved through a potent offensive style. This came to fruition in Leach's second year at the helm, as the Cougars became eligible on Nov. 23 for their first bowl appearance in 10 years with a 49-37 win over Utah.
Washington State is the nation's fifth-most prolific passing offense at 372 yards per game, which has fueled the Cougars' 31-point per game average. But Washington State has defense to thank for its matching its highest regular season win total since 2006 and factoring into the bowl picture for the first time since 2003.
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske's unit has had its struggles and successes in 2013. But when the Cougars are flourishing on that side of the ball, they are at their most dangerous.
For a team that hit the minimum benchmark for bowl eligibility, every Washington State win was equally meaningful. Two victories in particular, however, stand out as the defining moments in a season of redemption: A 10-7 win Sept. 7 at USC for the Cougars' first win at the Coliseum since 2002, and a 24-17 decision at Arizona on Nov. 16.
Against USC, Washington State carried the momentum from an outstanding defensive second half at Auburn in Week 1—an increasingly impressive feat as the Tigers have climbed in the BCS standings and now rank No. 16 in the nation in scoring. Auburn could muster just two field goals in that half, setting the tone for the USC visit.
The Cougars took advantage of a Trojans offense in disarray, gaining three turnovers, including cornerback Damante Horton's 70-yard interception return for a touchdown. The pick-six was Washington State's only touchdown on the night.
Horton has five interceptions now on the year, tied for second most in the Pac-12 and sharing the team lead with Deone Bucannon. Together, Horton and Bucannon give the Cougars a formidable secondary that sets the tone for the entire defense.
And the secondary may not have a better performance to its credit than against Arizona. One week before the Wildcats hung 42 points on Oregon, thanks in part to quarterback D.J. Denker's 19-of-22, two-touchdown performance, Washington State held him to one TD pass and a paltry 5.3 yards per attempt.
The Cougars defense was particularly good on the final Arizona possession when it denied two Denker throws to wide receiver Samajie Grant in the red zone.
Bucannon summarized the defense's mentality in his postgame press conference, per WSUCougars.com.
"Why not put everything into these last couple plays? That's what the main focus and main message was: We worked so hard for this, so why not put everything we had into it," he said.
The Cougars also limited Denker's game-breaking potential as a ball-carrier out of the zone-read, allowing him 3.8 yards per carry.
Leach's pass-happy offensive attack deserves plenty of credit. Quarterback Connor Halliday capitalized on the defense's outstanding effort at Arizona with a pair of touchdown passes. He completed nearly 73 percent of his attempts.
It's no surprise Washington State's won given Halliday's strong effort. When he's at his best so are the Cougars—he has seven multiple-touchdown games; five occurred in Cougar wins. Washington State is also nearly two touchdowns per game better in wins (36.1 points per game) than losses (24.8 points per game).
However, there's an even more stark contrast in its defensive production. In losses, Washington State is surrendering a whopping 51.0 points per game. In wins, opponent output plummets to just 15.5 points per game.
Clearly, level of competition plays a role in that staggering differential. Four of Washington State's five losses are to teams ranked No. 13 or higher in the BCS, and its wins include Football Championship Subdivision Southern Utah, 1-10 Idaho and 1-11 Cal. And that's precisely what makes its showings against USC and Arizona so crucial to the Cougars' bowl eligibility.
The Trojans and Wildcats are scoring just shy of 30 and 34 points per game, respectively, and the Cougars held them multiple touchdowns below their averages. The lumps Washington State took against offenses, including Oregon and Arizona State, forced the defense to mature quickly, which Leach addressed in his postgame press conference after the Arizona win.
"Youth contributes to it," Leach said via WSUCougars.com. "But they’re getting older, they’re getting better."
This Friday, Washington State faces another test in Apple Cup rival Washington.
The Huskies are scoring just shy of 40 points per game with a balanced run-pass offense. Bucannon, Horton and their teammates in the secondary are tasked with containing the Huskies' receiving corps of Kevin Smith, Jaydon Mickens, John Ross, Damore'ea Stringfellow and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Of equal importance is slowing down running Bishop Sankey, a feat the Cougars accomplished in their 2012 upset of Washington. Sankey could muster just 3.2 yards per carry last November in 31-28 overtime win for Washington State.
Replicating that effort is a tall order, especially on the road. However, the road's been kind to the Cougars—in particular, the Cougars' defense.
"Wherever we go it feels like home because we love playing on the road," linebacker Darryl Monroe said following the Arizona game, via ArizonaWildcats.com. "We like playing on the road because we like to silence the crowds."