The Cougars seemed evenly matched on offense and defense Sunday. But that's a good thing, says head coach Mike Leach

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LEWISTON, Idaho – Washington State’s defense was on a mission to deny red zone touchdowns in the team period that concluded practice Sunday afternoon at Sacajawea Junior High School.

Backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski’s red zone series ended abruptly when defensive linemen Dan Ekuale and Hercules Mata’afa ganged up to deny tailback Gerard Wicks passage over the goal line. One play before that, Ekuale got to Hilinski in what would have been a sack if the quarterbacks were not off limits.

Later, the Cougars’ pass rush also stopped starting quarterback Luke Falk’s final series from the 5-yard-line. With the coverage tight enough that Falk was forced to roll out, the defense converged on him, and rush linebacker Frankie Luvu got the sack.

It was a good showing from a group of pass rushers who know they need to step up their game this year.

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“The coaches, we talk about it all the time. We’ve gotta do more than we did last year,” said defensive line coach Jeff Phelps. “Last year was good, but we’ve gotta do more, otherwise we’re going to have the same results. And we want to finish the thing out the way we should, and start off on a great note so those guys are dialed in. They’re getting it done. It’s part of camp.”

Overall, the defense had a good day. Highlights included rush linebacker Chima Onyeukwu forcing a James Williams fumble, freshman cornerback George Hicks III picking off a Falk pass meant for C.J. Dimry on a corner route, cornerback Marcus Strong almost turning another Falk pass into an interception, and Jalen Thompson notching a big pass breakup when he got a hand on a ball meant for Easop Winston at the goal line.

But the offense had its moments too.

Jamal Morrow caught a 25-yard pass and blew by the safety for a touchdown, Williams juked and cut his way around the entire defense to rumble 50 yards down the sidelines on a rushing touchdown, Isaiah Johnson-Mack made a graceful one-handed catch down the sidelines on a corner route for a 20-yard gain, and Tavares Martin pulled in a perfectly placed 30-yard touchdown pass from Falk.

At one point, the offense harassed second team nickelback Kirkland Parker when, on consecutive plays, Jamire Calvin got out ahead of Parker to pull in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Hilinski, and then Dezmon Patmon burned Parker again for another score down the right sideline.

WSU coach Mike Leach said he relished the back-and-forth between offense and defense because that’s the way it should be.

“We’re getting a little more consistent,” Leach said. “You’re kinda looking for more consistent effort out of both sides. You don’t want one side to massively get the upper hand. I thought we’ve had too much of that (in the past). You don’t want defense to one day hammer the offense and the next day offense to hammer the defense.”

Leach said Hicks performed best of all the cornerbacks Sunday. The freshman from San Bernardino, Calif. got significant reps with the second team because starting right cornerback Marcellus Pippins was limited in practice for the second day in a row.

With Pippins out, Strong slid into the right cornerback spot, with Hicks backing him up.

“George has played real well. George has a nose for the ball,” Leach said. “Sometimes he’ll undercut it or be too aggressive and will (let it) get behind him. But he’s really quick. He turns his hips good and finds the football.”

Thompson vs. Calvin Make-or-miss rematch

Saturday’s practice ended with freshman receiver Calvin coming up short against sophomore safety Thompson in the make-or-miss drill that pits a defensive player against an offensive player who’s trying to carry the ball acoss the goal line.

On Sunday, Calvin and Thompson faced off again in a rematch, “tournament style,” in a best of three series. Calvin won round one, as Thompson whiffed on the tackle. Thompson came back in round two to set up a deciding final round. This time, Thompson squared up against Calvin, wrapped him up and drove him backward for the win.

That effort and competitive spirit is characteristic of Thompson, who “keeps getting better,” Leach said. “He’s very explosive and very athletic. He’s naturally kind of an optimistic guy. You never see him get down, and he plays extremely hard. He’s been a pretty good example to guys older than him as far as playing hard.”

More notes:

Defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo was limited in practice, which freed up an opportunity for sophomore Derek Moore to run with the first team.