The Cougars' defensive line made progress against Oregon. Now, Stanford's shaky offensive line presents a big opportunity for them to take the next step in their evolution.

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Washington State’s defensive line made huge strides against Oregon, delivering its most productive performance of the season and accounting for 13 total tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hurries, and five of the Cougars’ season-high eight tackles for loss.

For Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, it was heartening to see that progress from his front line, which he admits has taken a few games to find its form.

“What you saw on Saturday was a commitment to completing stunts and a different urgency about us in terms of stepping into a particular gap, and planning to come free and finding a way to work yourself into the backfield,” Grinch said. “I’m much more pleased with what we got. Part of that ties into the fact that it was Game 4.

“Unfortunately, these are offseason changes we have to find a way to implement to make sure we get out the gate quicker.”

The Cougars hope their improving pass rush will take the next step in its evolution this Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif. against No. 15 Stanford’s offensive line.

Stanford’s brand of power football is predicated on the strength of its offensive line. However, the Cardinal’s line has struggled this season behind three first year starters – left tackle A.T. Hall, left guard David Bright and center Jesse Burkett.

According to Pro Football Focus, Hall and Bright were responsible for five of the eight sacks UW’s defense had against Stanford last week, and Hall alone has given up six of the 12 sacks opponents have tallied against Stanford’s offensive line this season.

So expect the Cougars’ defensive line to attack the left side of Stanford’s offensive line. Sophomore defensive end Hercules Mata’afa leads the team with 7.0 tackles for loss, and is coming off a magnificent outing against Oregon in which he had 3.5 TFL, a sack and two quarterback hurries.

The Cougars experimented with a new starting defensive line configuration against Oregon, with Garrett McBroom earning his first career start at defensive end, while Dan Ekuale, the man McBroom displaced, came off the bench to record three tackles and an assist on a tackle for loss.

Grinch thinks the increased competition has brought out the best in both McBroom and Ekuale, whom he considers “co-starters” now.

“Garrett earned it and put Dan in a situation that he’d have to fight to be a starter,” Grinch said. “You see it with a number of positions. I wish it could become the norm that based on how you perform on Saturdays and in practice is going to dictate who the starters are.”

The Cougars don’t have enough quality depth yet to be able to stage all out competitions for starting spots at every position on defense, but the gulf between the starters and the backups is closing, Grinch said.

For instance, the Cougars started Shalom Luani instead of Parker Henry at nickelback last week because Grinch felt that Luani was a better matchup against the Ducks’ up-tempo offense.

“It ties into our personnel and the type of offense we’ll face. This week, we’ll try as best we can to match (Stanford’s) personnel,” Grinch said. “Last week, with the tempo Oregon plays with, it gave you less opportunity to have specific substitution packages. So you come up with a plan to use certain guys in certain spots by determining whether it’s the best option.

“Shalom is a guy in our defense – and this won’t shock anybody – who we want to play at six different spots. We have to find where he can be most effective.”

The Cougars’ defensive coordinator has dissected the game film from Stanford’s defeat to UW, but cautions that it’s simplistic to assume the Huskies’ win offers a full defensive blueprint on how to defeat Stanford.

“You absolutely do look at (the UW-Stanford film) but I don’t know that there’s big picture stuff you take from it,” Grinch said. “Stanford prides themselves on running the football, and they do it at an elite level for long stretches of time.

“That day, because the scoreboard got tilted early, it gets Stanford out of what their (modus operandi) is. The offense is chasing points and wants to throw the ball downfield.”

So perhaps in this case, the best defense to Stanford’s offense is WSU’s offense. If the Cougars can get out to a fast start and force the Cardinal to chase points the way they had to in Seattle last weekend, that might be the biggest gift WSU coach Mike Leach could give Grinch and his defense.