The Cougars' defense has always been eclipsed by Washington State's signature Air Raid offense, but after a dominating effort in a 42-16 win over Stanford, they're out to build their own identity

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PALO ALTO, Calif. – During a news conference after Washington State’s 42-16 dismantling of 15th-ranked Stanford on Saturday night, Cougars defensive end Hercules Mata’afa was asked how satisfying it was to know the defensive line had so thoroughly dominated a Stanford offensive line that is known for its tough, physical brand of football.

Mata’afa didn’t look impressed at all.

“We want to create our own reputation, you know?” Mata’afa said. “They’re known for coming downhill. We want to establish our brand of football.”

Since coach Mike Leach arrived in November 2011, the term “Washington State football” has become synonymous with his Air Raid offense.

But the Cougars’ defense has never really had an identity of its own.

Until now, that is.

Just call it Washington State’s “Speed D.” Trademark pending.

That’s the identity second year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is trying to build for his unit, and it appears to be working.

Against the Cardinal (3-2 overall, 2-2 Pac 12) Saturday night, WSU’s defense put on one of its most impressive performances since Grinch was hired as coordinator before the start of the 2015 season.

The Cougars (3-2, 2-0) stonewalled Stanford’s offense, tallying a season-high four sacks, grabbing two interceptions, forcing two fumbles and holding running back Christian McCaffrey to a season-low 35 rushing yards on eight carries. Stanford averaged 2.3 yards per carry overall, and had 61 total rushing yards – its second-lowest total this year.

WSU’s defense also forced three three-and-outs, allowed the Cardinal to convert only six of its 14 third downs, and kept Stanford out of the red zone until the last drive of the game, when the Cardinal finally scored its first offensive touchdown of the game in what was essentially garbage time.

And the dominance was evident from start to finish, as the defense held down the fort in the first half until the Cougars could get things going on offense.

Suddenly, this defense is no longer an afterthought on the team. Grinch’s unit is more than pulling its weight, and the Cougars’ offense is greatly appreciative.

“I think our offense (this year) more than most years, we feed off the defense,” said WSU receiver Gabe Marks. “They got a lot of energy over there. … seeing them get stops and everything really gives us the confidence to go out there.

“We want to make plays for them.”

After struggling, like the rest of the team, to find an identity early in the season, the Cougars’ defense is finally figuring out who they are and what they’re made of.

The Stanford victory marked the second straight week WSU has soundly beaten its opponent on the line of scrimmage. A week earlier, the Cougars beat Oregon 51-33.

Mata’afa might not want to admit he is impressed with the way his unit handled Stanford’s physical style, but his head coach was pretty happy with the big guys up front — and not shy about saying so.

“I felt like we played really hard on the D-line,” Leach said. “I don’t know that I can think of a position that we played harder on in this game than the D-line. They were disruptive all day and we were good against the run and the pass.”

Stanford coach David Shaw also praised WSU’s defense for being a “good combination of guys up front physically for them, and a tough scheme.”

That’s the kind of defense WSU wants to become known for.

“I think we’re establishing ourselves as a downhill, physical defense,” said linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who had five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble Saturday. “And our offense just keeps doing their thing. We’re definitely playing together, and that’s what we wanted from the very start.

“I think all the pieces are starting to come together.”