Oregon State's Cooks a tough test for UW defense

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SEATTLE — The last game Justin Wilcox played at Oregon State was in 1998, and it’s not a fond memory.

Wilcox, then a defensive back for Oregon, remembers getting beaten by Oregon State receiver Tim Alexander for a touchdown in the Beavers’ 44-41 double-overtime victory in Corvallis. Oregon State fans stormed the field in what many consider the Beavers’ greatest victory over their in-state rival.

“I got shook so bad by Tim Alexander,” Wilcox said Tuesday, adding in his typical self-deprecating style: “He was a way better athlete than I was. I should not have been on him.”

Lucky for Wilcox, then, he won’t have to defend Oregon State’s newest standout receiver, Brandin Cooks, when he heads back to Corvallis for the first time as Washington’s defensive coordinator on Saturday night.

With 100 catches in 10 games, Cooks is on pace to break the Pac-12 Conference record of 118 catches in a season, set by USC’s Marqise Lee last year. Add in the big right arm of quarterback Sean Mannion, and the UW secondary will be as busy as ever.

Washington State, with its Air Raid offense, figures to throw even more in the Apple Cup next week.

Luckily for Wilcox, the Huskies (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) have been good against the pass, ranking No. 1 in the Pac-12 in allowing just 207.6 yards per game. Washington is second in both yards per attempt (5.9) and pass-defense rating (110.79).

“We’ve done a decent job in certain games; in other games obviously we haven’t played as well,” Wilcox said. “It all goes back to the fundamentals and the details of your assignment, playing with great fundamentals and technique.”

Washington linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said Cooks is “as good a player as we’ll face all year.” Cooks, 5 feet 10, 186 pounds, did not practice Tuesday with a sore hamstring, but OSU coach Mike Riley told reporters he was hopeful the junior would be back to full speed Wednesday.

“He’s a polished receiver,” Wilcox said. “His routes are good, and he’s not just a fast guy. He’s a football player. He can run the ball, he can catch the ball — hell, he could probably throw it. …

“Our guys are going to be excited to go compete against him because he’s one of the best.”

Wilcox, like most defensive coordinators, mixes up coverages in the secondary, but he likes his cornerbacks to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. It’s been effective, with UW sophomore Marcus Peters earning high praise at times this season.

“There’s a fine line with that, but you’ve got to take away the easy throws,” Sirmon said of the press coverage. “Not many guys in college football do a good job of getting off press and getting off guys being physical, and that’s something we talk about quite a bit.”

Mannion, meanwhile, leads the nation with 33 touchdown passes, and Wilcox called Connor Hamlett, the OSU tight end from Edmonds, “really underrated.” He added that the Beavers utilize the screen pass, to both their running backs and tight ends, as well as anyone UW has faced.

Wilcox grew up in Junction City, Ore., a quiet farming community along Highway 99 just 15 minutes northwest of Eugene and 25 miles south of Corvallis. The Huskies, as most Pac-12 teams do before playing Oregon State, will stay in Eugene on Friday and take the 45-minute bus ride en route to Corvallis.

“We’ll get to drive through (Junction City), so that’s exciting,” Wilcox said. “I’m going to wave to everybody at the Dairy Queen.”

They’ll only be passing through his hometown. A couple hours later, Wilcox’s defense hopes to pass an even better test.

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