The No. 16 Cougars have allowed 14 sacks in four games, 121st in the nation. Now they face a front seven with multiple projected NFL picks.
Toward the end of Washington State’s win over Nevada last week, the Cougars’ offensive linemen were spotted doing up-downs on the sideline.
Why the in-game calisthenics?
“If you can’t move the ball one foot on fourth-and-a-foot, well yeah, the offensive line and running backs will probably do up-downs again,” said WSU coach Mike Leach, who ordered the 15 in-game up-downs to send a message to his offensive line.
Through four games, No. 16 Washington State has been inconsistent at best on the offensive line, coach Clay McGuire said. Now, the Cougars’ O-line will face its toughest challenge of the season yet.
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No. 5 USC (4-0) comes to town Friday in a matchup of unbeaten teams that will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
But if the Cougars (4-0) want to snap the Trojans’ 13-game unbeaten streak, they’ll need improved play from the offensive line.
“We’ve been up and down. I don’t think we’re hitting on all cylinders right now,” McGuire sad. “We’ve shown flashes of what we can be, and we’ve done some good things, but we’ve also been sloppy at times.
“I don’t think we’ve played together as a unit yet, and we need to start doing that as we hit the Pac-12 stretch.”
USC’s defensive line undoubtedly will be the best WSU has faced this season. That’s a concern because the Cougars have given up 14 sacks in four games and are ranked 121st in sacks allowed nationally.
“We’re not real happy about that stat at the moment,” McGuire said. “It’s not what were looking for. We definitely don’t want the hits on the quarterback. Those add up as you move through the season.”
The stat looks even worse when considering the teams WSU has played. FCS opponent Montana State had two sacks against the Cougars. Boise State – arguably the best defense WSU has played to this point – had five sacks. Oregon State came to Pullman still hunting for its first sack of the season. The Beavers left with three. Then came winless Nevada, which sacked quarterback Luke Falk three times and buried Tyler Hilinski once in garbage time.
Now, the Cougars’ offensive line faces the challenge of holding off Trojans tackle Rasheem Green – projected as a first-round NFL draft pick – pass-rush specialist Christian Rector (4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and edge-rushing linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (2 tackles for loss, 1 sack).
USC likely will be without standout linebacker Porter Gustin, who has a broken big toe.
“We’re going to have to play at a high level,” McGuire said. “(USC’s front seven) is by far the best we’ve faced up to this point. They’re big and athletic, and it’s a good unit. With the depth they have, they don’t have to do a whole lot (of) smoke-and-mirrors stuff.”
McGuire and Leach said the offensive line needs to improve, but they also pointed out that the unit is not solely to blame for the sacks WSU has given up.
“I’ve always thought that sacks, with rare exception, are not just on the offensive line. A lot of times, people point fingers at the offensive line,” Leach said. “I think the quarterback has a role in that ,too, and as a team, the offensive line, quarterback and backs all have a role in it.”
That’s true in some cases, but the offensive line knows it must do better.
WSU’s offense works best when it gets in a rhythm, and the offensive line plays a big part in allowing the Cougars to find that momentum either by opening holes for the backs or giving the quarterback time to make reads.
“With what teams are doing to us right now, Luke needs a little more time to let things develop down the field,” McGuire said. “We’re never going to be a team that tries to just quick-game everybody. That’s not how we’re built. We’re one of the few teams that still truly pass protects.”
And that pass protection has been lacking of late.
“I think our blitz protection was a little sloppy in the last couple games,” right tackle Cole Madison said, adding that he and his linemates have to lean on each other and win more one-on-one battles.
Center Fred Mauigoa gave up a sack early in the Nevada game, and right guard B.J. Salmonson gave up two.
McGuire believes all those things can be rectified.
Mauigoa recovered from his early gaffe to play well the rest of the game against Nevada.
“Fred has done some good stuff. We’ve gotta continue to challenge him, and he’s got a lot of ability. Last week was his best up to this point,” McGuire said.
Salmonson can be fiercely effective when he’s dialed in, but he needs to cut down on some fundamental mistakes.
“His good plays are really good, and he plays at a high level. He plays really hard,” McGuire said of Salmonson. “When he got beat the other day, it was just self-inflicted, getting in a bad position and over-selling something and getting beat on a counter. You don’t want to curb his aggression, but we’ve got to not have him get beat.”
Madison has been the steadiest and most consistent of all the offensive linemen this season, McGuire says, and left tackle Andre Dillard won the most recent Bone Award that goes to the best offensive lineman each week.
But the key to offensive-line success is that everyone must play together, and that’s what McGuire needs his guys to improve on down the stretch and – to borrow a term Madison likes to use, “play nasty.”
“There needs to be a sense of urgency. In some of these games we’ve played, there’s been lackadaisical reps taken when we’re winning 35-0. We haven’t played our best games when we’ve been up like that,” McGuire said. “And that’s bad coaching on my end as far as getting them to take every rep like it’s fourth-and-one in the Super Bowl.”