PULLMAN — The players gathered at the coach’s house, some of them dressed in Halloween garb.
They weren’t there to study film, or discuss schemes, or perform up-downs. Instead, Washington State’s linebackers and defensive linemen typically just eat dinner, play Xbox and watch football when they visit linebacker coach Jeff Choate’s house.
“I think these kids have to know that we care about them outside of what they’re doing between these white lines, and not talk a lot of football,” said Choate.
As for the white lines, the defense being played between them is getting better.
WSU’s numbers aren’t markedly better than last season. In some areas, they’re worse. But the Cougars’ improvement — in speed, effort and physicality — is apparent. And they’ve played well enough recently to inspire confidence that better things could lie ahead.
“We have one standard,” Choate said. “We’re not going to deviate from that standard in our expectations. We’re going to get it out of these guys or somebody else is going to come along and do it, but we’re going to get it.”
Their two most promising performances both resulted in losses, both on the road. The first was a 19-6 setback against Oregon State in which WSU held the Beavers without a touchdown in the first half. The second was last week against Stanford, a game the Cardinal won 24-17 despite gaining just 256 offensive yards.
That WSU held Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor to just 58 yards on 21 carries was especially impressive, considering the Cougars allowed Cal to rush for 318 yards the game before.
While watching tape of the Stanford game, linebacker Darryl Monroe said Choate told his players: “This is how a great defense looks on the regular, and they’re upset if it doesn’t look that way.”
Players are starting to trust that it will.
“That’s why I feel we’ve been making plays and starting to come together as a defense, because we listen to what our coaches say, use the techniques they taught us,” Monroe said. “We just kind of make a team beat us with something they haven’t shown us or a way that our coach hasn’t taught us to play it.”
While the Cougars allow more yards per game than last season (436.8 through eight games), they also allow fewer points per game (29.6) and have eclipsed last year’s totals in sacks (21 this year, 17 last year) and interceptions (11 so far).
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske said the way his unit played against Stanford needs to mirror its effort on every play. And that’s something WSU is learning it can accomplish.
“As a group, individually, whatever the case may be, they’ve got to perform at that level,” Breske said. “And they can. We’ve just got to grow up.”