Going into the Oregon game, Washington State’s defensive line had just two sacks on the season, and had not demonstrated any ability to effectively harass opposing quarterbacks in a consistent manner.
That changed Saturday night, as the Cougars’ defensive line finally asserted its might in a 51-33 win over the Ducks at Martin Stadium.
Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa had what was arguably the best game of his career, doubling his tackle-for-loss tally for the season by becoming recording 3.5 tackles for loss -- the most any single Cougars has had in a game since Cyrus Coen recorded four against Arizona State in 2012.
Mata’afa was also responsible for recording the first safety WSU has put up since the 2006 Stanford game, and his big play came at a juncture where the Cougars were looking vulnerable and needed something to keep the momentum firmly on their side of the field.
The Cougars’ offense hummed efficiently through the first half, but the progress appeared to stall early in the third quarter, when, on consecutive drives, WSU had a field goal blocked and turned the ball over on downs after the offense failed to score after two attempts from the Ducks’ 3 yard line.
With Oregon lined up deep in its own end zone, Mata’afa had his lone sack of the night -- dragging Ducks’ quarterback Dakota Prukop down in the end zone before Prukop could get rid of the ball.
The safety put WSU up 30-14 and helped keep the Cougars comfortably abreast of the Ducks until their offense found its footing again.
Defensive tackle Robert Barber sacked Prukop once in the first quarter to help Mata’afa double the defensive line’s season sack total. Mata’afa also had two quarterback hurries, one of which came at the end of the first half, and forced Prukop to make an ill-advised throw that landed in the hands of linebacker Isaac Dotson.
Prukop threw one interception, with no passing touchdowns, and completed 14 of 22 passes for 132 yards – the lowest passing yardage the Cougars have held any quarterback to this season.
“The defensive line did a great job tonight,” said linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “We knew coming in that they had four freshmen offensive linemen and we were kinda expecting to get after them. So credit to the defensive line for doing their job well.”
But it wasn’t just the defensive line that showed up against Oregon. The Cougars’ entire defense kept Prukop uncomfortable all night long, forcing him to throw before he was ready, keeping receivers covered and containing running back Royce Freeman for most of the evening.
Freeman scored three touchdowns and had 138 rushing yards on 19 carries, but 75 on those yards came on one play -- his long touchdown in the third quarter.
“It was a team effort,” Mata’afa said after the game. “The safeties and corners were doing their job in the backfield. We’re clicking on all cylinders, so we really got after the quarterback today.”
Shalom Luani, who made his first career start at nickelback, almost came up with his third interception of the year when he got in front of an underthrown Prukop pass on Oregon’s second drive of the game.
Cornerback Darrien Molton also had a stellar outing. Molton finished behind Robert Taylor as the Cougars’ second leading tackler, with six total sacks, including one for loss.
Molton forced one of Oregon’s two turnovers when he turned a reception by Oregon’s Dwayne Stanford into a fumble, stripping the ball as he tackled Stanford on his way down from the catch.
Taylor – who earned his second start at free safety –recovered the fumble and ran it up 25 yards to give the Cougars’ offense great field position at the Oregon 26 yard line.
The Cougars’ open field tackling abilities were much improved from their poor showing in the season opener against Eastern Washington, when the defense looked porous, giving up chunk yardage to skill players who literally slipped through the Cougars’ arms on numerous occasions.
Taylor said the defensive coaches have placed a lot of emphasis on open field tackling in recent weeks.
“Like you see from our work with the donut, we make sure we get the tackles done,” Taylor said, referring to the oversized donuts the Cougars use to practice tackling moving objects. “Coug D is speed D, that’s what we’re about.”