Seniors Marcellus Pippins and Robert Taylor constitute the Bay Area half of WSU's 'Hot Boy$' defensive secondary, and they're excited to play on the road but in front of some 'home' fans.

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Marcellus Pippins has made some huge plays in his four years at cornerback for Washington State.

Case in point: The fumble he forced against Boise State this season on a tackle of Broncos’ running back Alexander Mattison on third-and-goal that was recovered by Frankie Luvu.

Pippins and Luvu also combined for a second strip-sack big play against Oregon State when Pippins nailed Jake Luton and Luvu picked up the loose ball to score on a 40-yard return.

The Cougars’ senior cornerback has a fun, outgoing personality to match his in-your-face style of play and his legendary dancing skills between plays, and that personality often fuels his confidence on the field. Pippins, says his mother, Volaney Harris-Lee, has always played football with emotion. You can tell how he’s feeling on any given day by watching the way he engages receivers, and his exuberance often rubs off on the entire team.

“Pip likes to get loud. Pip likes to pump us up,” says free safety Robert Taylor. “He’s very emotional. You see him dancing and hollering, and we feed off that a little bit.”

But sometimes, that emotion can also get in Pippins’ way.

Which was what happened last week, against Oregon, when Pippins correctly diagnosed a play and quickly wrapped up Ducks’ receiver Johnny Johnson III to force the loss of one yard.

The problem came after the tackle. Pippins either stood over the receiver too long after making the play, or talked a little too much trash, but the result was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Cougars 15 yards.

Oops.

WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch took Pippins out after that play, and sat him for a couple of series. Pippins also apologized to his teammates on the sideline. But no one was too upset about it.

If anything, Taylor says, they’re willing to live with the occasional show of overzealousness because that’s the moxie they’re trying to cultivate on defense this year.

As the eighth-ranked Cougars (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) take on Cal (3-3, 0-3), WSU’s pass defense is, statistically, one of the most improved areas of play. The Cougars have the nation’s sixth-ranked pass defense, are giving up a Pac-12-best 146.3 yards per game and have only allowed four passing touchdowns.

Becoming Hot Boy$

The improved pass rush has been integral in WSU’s success against the pass, but the defensive secondary has also been playing at a high level.

Pippins, Taylor, strong safety Jalen Thompson and left cornerback Darrien Molton have started every game for WSU this season, though, Molton left the Oregon game in the first half with what looked like a hand or wrist injury, and later reappeared on the sideline with a cast on his left wrist. There’s a chance he might not be able to play against Cal, which could open an opportunity for Sean Harper Jr. or freshman Marcus Strong to play a bigger role.

Still, the WSU defensive backs have dubbed themselves the Hot Boy$ — yes, the ‘s’ at the end is a dollar sign—and their goal is to be mean on every play.

The name came about in the offseason, after Taylor called a position meeting at his house and talked about the importance of finding a group identity.

“We just came up with ‘The Hot Boy$,” Taylor says. “Like I tell the guys every week, we can’t be Hot Boy$ if we don’t do hot boy stuff like being mean and going up and making tackles.”

Pippins’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was regrettable, but in its own way, it speaks to the aggressive mindset the Cougars defensive backs have adopted.

“He apologized about it. He made a mistake,” Taylor said. “But If we’re gonna be (mean) in coverage and (mean) on the defense, sometimes things like that have to happen. We don’t encourage things like that, and we’re not gonna put our defense in bad situations like that, but it just goes to show, we’re gonna be mean back there. That’s the kind of defense we’re gonna play.”

Half the Hot Boy$ hail from the Bay Area, which makes this Friday’s game against Cal pretty special, because it’s Taylor and Pippins’ final chance to play at home in front of lots of friends and family.

Taylor grew up in San Leandro, about 45 minutes south of Berkeley, while Pippins went to El Cerrito High School, and split his time between his dad’s home in Richmond, and his mom’s place in Oakland.

They both had to scrap up dozens of tickets and will have sizable cheering contingents at the game this Friday.

Taylor said earlier this week that he was trying to find at least 30 tickets for his supporters, while Pippins’ mom estimates that there will be a good 50 people cheering on No. 21.

Homecoming for Pippins and Taylor

For Taylor, getting to play at home is once again validation of the risk he took in walking away from a scholarship after his first year at UC-Davis, to start over at San Francisco City College in hope of working his way onto an FBS-level team.

“Coming out of high school, I was really un-recruited,” Taylor says, adding that Cal never offered him a scholarship. “They like a lot of SoCal kids – that’s something wrong with Cal. They don’t like getting in their own backyard.”

For Pippins, it’ll be fun to get to bring a little bit of this charmed Cougars season out to his hometown.

Pippins grew up in Richmond, about 10 minutes from Berkeley.

Scroll through his Twitter feed, and it’s clear that he’s immensely proud of his roots. Underneath his profile picture is the caption, “Richmond, CA, Bay Area raised me.”

“You don’t hear a lot about Richmond, and when you do, it’s always bad news,” Pippins says. “We’re a real prideful city.”

But it’s also the sort of city where you have to be careful where you venture.

“I’m from the southside. If you’re from the southside and you cross the tracks and go to the north side, you’re in enemy territory,” Pippins says. “It’s split up by a train track. Some people can’t even go to the north side if they’re from a different gang affiliation or things like that.”

Pippins’ love for sports kept him on the right side of the tracks, both metaphorically and literally.

Back when Marcellus’ father, C.M. Pippins was growing up in Richmond, kids used to play street ball until it got dark. But by the time Marcellus was old enough to play sports, the streets were no longer safe for kids because of neighborhood violence, so he spent most of his time either at football practice, or in indoor basketball gyms all around the city.

Basketball was Pippins’ first love, and his mother thinks that if he had to go back in time and pick again, he might have chosen to play basketball in college instead of football. Marcellus had a basketball scholarship offer to play at the University of San Francisco, but he turned that down to pursue his love for football instead.

“I think his love for football is different than the love he has for basketball,” Harris-Lee says. “With his natural ability, he’s instinctual for football. He wasn’t taught how to be a corner or to key on the ball. It was all so very natural for him.”

Pippins learned some of his cornerback skills from former Cougars defensive back LaMont Thompson, who’s also from Richmond, and who coached Pippins during his final two years at El Cerrito High.

Thompson’s influence was a big reason why Pippins ended up at WSU, where he’s continued honing those cornerback skills under Grinch. WSU’s defensive coordinator says Pippins has shown better technique in pass coverage this year.

WSU hasn’t traditionally been great at stopping the pass, and during Pippins’ freshman year in 2014, the Cougars had the second-worst pass defense in the country, allowing an average of 296.6 passing yards per game.

But with his guys facing hundreds of passes in practice against the Air Raid offense every day, Grinch challenged his DBs this offseason to make pass coverage their strength.

“As I tell them, across the board in the secondary, no one sees more throws than us. No one gets more reps than us, and I don’t think we’ve used that to our advantage in the past. It’s almost been a detriment” Grinch said. “I think these guys are finally taking coaches’ advice –no matter how many times they’ve run that route, I promise you we’ve covered it more.”

The Hot Boy$ have risen to the challenge, and Pippins and Taylor both want to put up a good showing in front of their hometown crowds.

For them, like the rest of the Cougars, this season is about fulfilling their potential.

“I want us to win as many games as possible, and bring that Apple Cup back to Pullman, and have our Cinderella senior year with a Pac-12 championship. All that stuff,” Pippins says.