PULLMAN — The most impressive quality of this Washington State defense, according to Jake Dickert, is how quickly it adapted.
“The biggest thing, and I constantly remind people: That last game was Game 9 together — not even a full season in this defense,” said the second-year defensive coordinator, who didn’t get enough time to fully install his system during the coronavirus-impacted 2020 campaign.
When asked to assess WSU’s progressions as a defensive unit, Dickert first commended the group’s mature character, cohesion and dedication. Veteran intangibles were key as they absorbed the former Wyoming DC’s strategies, and now find themselves playing their best ball in recent memory.
“I think there’s a belief in our guys that’s really, really strong,” Dickert said after practice Tuesday at Rogers Field. “I think the culture is really, really strong. I think our body language and mentality — even through adversity — is really, really strong. So, I think our leadership has gotten better.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that want to work hard and do it right.”
Coming off its most convincing showing in four years, WSU’s defense will be measured when it meets Oregon State’s powerful ground game Saturday at Gesa Field.
The Cougars (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) curbed Cal’s usually productive offense last weekend in Berkeley, holding the Golden Bears to six points — the fewest WSU has surrendered in a Pac-12 game since a 2017 shutout of Colorado.
WSU’s offense went idle late in the game, but its defense never lost bounce after giving up a touchdown on Cal’s first series. The Cougars forced seven punts, limited the Bears’ big plays and quashed a few second-half rumblings of a comeback.
They tallied four sacks and consistently had Cal quarterback Chase Garbers uneasy in his pocket.
“I’d say last week was our most disruptive week,” Dickert said. “Not just sacks. Everyone always looks at the sack category, but to me it’s hits, it’s disruption. Are we moving the pocket? Are we creating confusion up there with the quarterback? How much are we affecting him? It was a great blend and it was great strides we made.”
WSU head coach Nick Rolovich lauded the “collective effort” of the defense throughout the game, crediting Dickert for successfully installing a set of standards that have “been absorbed by the players.”
“Their expectation of themselves is high and they played like it,” Rolovich said. “Defense had quite an impressive performance — how hard they played. (Linebacker) Justus Rogers looked like an inspired player, all the edges made plays. … It was fun to be there in person, but it was also really enjoyable to watch on film.”
WSU dialed up some exotic looks. It sometimes blitzed linebackers and a nickel while pulling edge rushers back into coverage. The Cougars were effective again when they trotted out a four-edge defensive line on passing downs.
Their most productive four-edge set had Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson — WSU’s starting edge rushers — line up across from guards, while Andrew Edson and Willie Taylor III manned the ends.
Cal converted 3 of 15 third downs. On average, it faced third-and-nine.
“You want to get your best guys in (on third-and-long) and we feel like we got four guys that can do it from multiple positions,” Dickert said. “It’s a unique skill set to have R.J. (Stone) and B.J. (Jackson) rush inside, and it’s a whole different feeling for those guards and centers.
“I think we’re athletic enough to drop into coverage and do some different things, probably things that we’ve wanted to get to through the first three or four (games). We didn’t quite use it enough.”
Dickert said he has employed that speed-oriented formation at each of his coaching stops. Pac-12 offenses are slowing the pace more often these days, so he’s been able to send out four edges frequently since taking the job in Pullman.
“A lot of times, with tempo teams, you can’t do it,” he said. “Our league is a little bit more huddle, a little bit more slow now. It allows us to package it a little bit, but we gotta be ready as it continues to be used. Teams will start to change the tempos up.”
WSU will probably need to play with more power than speed when the Beavers come to town. OSU piles up 229.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks first in the Pac-12 and 15th nationally. The Beavers, who also pace the conference in scoring average (36 ppg), bulldozed USC and Washington on the ground with a power game that often flows between the tackles. OSU ran the ball 50 times versus the Huskies.
“We got the No. 1 scoring offense coming and No. 1 rushing team, but I think our defense is in a mindset where that would be something they would not be afraid of,” Rolovich said.
For WSU, the emphasis is to contain the run game on first and second downs, forcing the Beavers to look to their game-manager quarterback in Chance Nolan, who completed 7 of 15 passes for 48 yards last weekend.
OSU leads the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate at 52% because it typically churns ahead for 4 or 5 yards on early downs.
“They do what they do probably better than anybody, and they’re not apologetic for it,” Dickert said. “It’s old-school, run the ball. Five yards and 5 yards, and you add up a bunch of 5 yards and it equals a lot of first downs.
“It’s football I’m familiar with, but our guys aren’t familiar with it. It’s going to take some physicality. It’s going to take some getting them behind the sticks, getting them into some passing situations. It’s gotta start up front.”
There will be more riding on the shoulders of the Cougars’ defensive tackles. Dickert has been pleased with their technical strides. Senior Amir Mujahid, in particular, has been “really standing out and doing great things,” Dickert said.
He called Tuesday’s session “one of our most physical scout practices we’ve had.”
“Sometimes I had to go, ‘Whoa,’ ” he said. “Our guys understand what it’s going to take to perform well on Saturday, and it’s going to start up front.”
The Cougars have become deft in forcing turnovers — they rank 12th in the nation with 11 takeaways. They are better tacklers in space than in past years and their front has improved its push.
WSU’s defense has allowed no more than two touchdowns in three of four FBS games this year. Bolstered by the pass rush, WSU’s secondary held the past two QBs it faced under 200 yards with a combined 51% completion rate.
Cougars defensive backs made multiple one-on-one stops in the open field on checkdown completions against Cal.
“Those guys keep improving,” Dickert said, pointing out George Hicks III for his seamless transition from corner to safety. Senior corner Jaylen Watson registered his first pick of the year and did not allow a reception at Cal, and fellow senior CB Derrick Langford Jr. “had his best game,” Dickert said.
“It was good to see those guys breaking on balls, keeping the ball in front, because that’s an explosive offense. We hit all our goals with (limiting) explosives.”
Linebacker Jahad Woods, WSU’s most seasoned player on a defense full of experience, attributes much of the defensive growth to “smoother” communication in Dickert’s 4-2-5 system.
“We don’t need any superheroes, we don’t need anybody making extra plays,” said Woods, who passed WSU great Peyton Pelluer on Saturday for fifth on the Cougars’ all-time tackles list. “We just need everybody to do their job, and once everybody’s on the same page, it works.”