The Air Raid offense gets most of the attention at No. 16 Washington State but the Cougars’ defense is also pretty good.
They’ll find out how good when Sam Darnold and No. 5 Southern California come to Pullman on Friday night.
Darnold is easily the best quarterback the Cougars (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have faced this year. The Heisman Trophy candidate is averaging 306 passing yards per game and has led the Trojans to 13 consecutive victories.
Yet Washington State linebacker Isaac Dotson said the Cougars will do nothing special to prepare for him.
“Nothing changes for us,” Dotson said. “We just play our defense. He’s a solid quarterback. A good player. He’s our next opponent. He’s one guy on that team. We are not preparing for one guy.”
The Trojans (4-0, 2-0) are playing Washington State for the first time since 2014, when they beat the Cougars 44-17 in Pullman. The game is sold out and excitement is high in the Palouse.
“It’s an exciting chance for us,” Dotson said.
Despite the recent loss of star linebacker Peyton Pelluer to a broken foot, Washington State ranks first in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 142 yards per game. They also have 15 sacks on the year. Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa had 2 1/2 sacks within the first six plays in last Saturday’s crushing of Nevada. He has 18 quarterback pressures so far this year.
“Offensive linemen can’t really block his movement,” Dotson said.
He pointed to the team’s speed off the ball for much of the pass rush success.
But Southern California brings a much bigger offensive line than the Cougars have faced in beating the likes of Montana State and Nevada. The Trojans linemen average 301 pounds while Washington State’s defensive linemen average 264 pounds.
The Cougars have been tough on opposing quarterbacks. They knocked Oregon State’s Jake Luton out of the game with an injury, and prompted Boise State and Nevada to change quarterbacks during those games. They are allowing only 18.5 points per game.
The Cougars are also meeting their goal of generating better than two turnovers per game.
“Each snap for us is an opportunity to get the ball out,” Dotson said. “Takeaways equal victories.”
Count Washington State coach Mike Leach as an admirer of Darnold, a 20-year-old sophomore who is projected as a high NFL draft pick.
“I think he’s mature, really just kind of mentally together for a guy that’s his age,” Leach said. “He’s big and the ball comes off his hand good.”
But asked if Darnold was ready to play in the NFL now, Leach went into a lengthy statement about how college players shouldn’t leave school early for the pros because hardly any are ready for the transition, including Darnold.
“I get a kick out of everybody thinks one 18-year-old after the next is ready to go to the NFL,” Leach said. “I think that’s laughable.”
“And I mean it would be terribly brutal. It would literally destroy some lives, too,” Leach said.
LOOKING BACK: Southern California’s 2014 win in Pullman was also the first meaningful playing time for Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, who came in after Connor Halliday broke his leg. Falk completed 38 of 57 passes for 346 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “That was his starting point really,” Leach said.