SPOKANE — Coach Mike Leach is best known as an offensive guru but Washington State has jumped to a 3-1 record this season largely on the strength of its defense.
That’s no surprise to cornerback Nolan Washington.
“We set a goal this offseason that we wanted to be a top 10 defense,” Washington said this week.
A 42-0 shutout of Idaho last weekend showed the Cougars are on the right track as they prepare to face No. 5 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) on Saturday. It was Washington State’s first shutout since the 2003 season.
Through four games, the Cougars (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) are allowing an average of 12 points and about 260 yards per game. They have not allowed a touchdown in the second half.
In a 10-7 upset of Southern California, Washington State’s only touchdown was scored on an interception return. They crushed Southern Utah 48-10. Their only loss was in the season opener, 31-24, at Auburn.
Leach certainly values his defense. He kept his starters in the game late during the blowout of Idaho in order to preserve the shutout.
“There hadn’t been a shutout in a long time, and nothing’s more important to a defense than a shutout,” Leach said. “That’s kind of a major goal and that’s what you take a lot of pride in.”
The three wins this year already equal the total from last year’s 3-9 season.
Washington State’s explosive offense is also clicking.
The Cougars are averaging 31 points per game behind the passing of Connor Halliday. Against Idaho, Halliday threw for four touchdowns for the sixth time in his career, tying Ryan Leaf for the most by a Washington State quarterback.
Running back Jeremiah Laufasa, who scored two touchdowns against Idaho, said this year’s team is different mentally from last year’s.
“We expect to make plays,” Laufasa said.
The Stanford game is in Seattle, where the Cougars play one game a year before a big crowd of alumni at CenturyLink Field. Some players have been critical of playing a home game off-campus, but Washington is not among them.
“Football is football,” Washington said. “I love Martin Stadium, but we could play football in Idaho, Spokane, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’d play in a desert if they told us we had to,” added linebacker Darryl Monroe.
Stanford’s physical, grinding offense is the best the Cougars will have faced so far. But Washington said the Cougars won’t be intimidated.
Last year, Stanford escaped with a 24-17 win at home despite sacking the Cougars’ quarterbacks 10 times.
“If we play our game, we can dominate anybody,” Washington said. “Last year we were right there with them physically.”
Halliday is pleased to be playing Stanford after the Cougars blew out two low-profile opponents.
“Nobody lives to play Southern Utah,” Halliday said. “You live to play the top five teams in the nation.”
Riding his first three-game winning streak at WSU, Leach said he definitely believes in the power of momentum.
“Any time a group draws from energy and excitement, there’s momentum,” Leach said. “To me, all momentum is, is a decision — everybody deciding together they’re excited to play.”
But he doesn’t want his team to get too excited about playing Stanford.
“If you get too anxious you hurt yourself,” Leach said. “They’re the next game, so we’re focused on them.”