When Mike Leach hired Alex Grinch to be Washington State's new defensive coordinator this offseason, the mandate was simple: Create a unit that can disrupt the prolific passing attacks of the Pac-12.
The Cougars were incapable of that last season. They allowed a conference-worst 8.3 yards per pass attempt. No team in the nation forced fewer turnovers (8), and no crew of defensive backs recorded fewer interceptions (2) on the season.
"Every single down of football allows you an opportunity to get the ball," Grinch said after taking the job. "That's got to be our mind-set."
Nine games into the 2015 season, Washington State's improvement under Grinch -- a former defensive back who developed the Missouri secondary into a ball-hawking force -- is apparent.
The 6-3 Cougars are picking passes off at almost four times the rate of last season -- they have eight interceptions already -- and they've already doubled their 2014 takeaway output. Washington State was ranked dead last nationally in forced turnovers (127th); they've now shot up to 44th.
The statistical surge pleases Grinch, but it doesn't seem to fully satisfy him.
"It's one of those deals where there's more to be had," he said. "There are more opportunities out there. You create them as opposed to hoping the ball finds you. We preach that takeaways equal victory. But if we want to have success down the stretch, that has to continue."
The Cougars' success has earned the team bowl eligibility and the real possibility of a nine-win regular season, but their feet will again be put to the fire against a balanced offense this weekend at UCLA. Despite its improvement, this is still far from a complete Washington State defense. Its performance against the run, in particular, has worsened significantly after losing a pair of stalwart defensive linemen from last year.
"Early on in the year, we were a very a very undisciplined football team from a gap standpoint," Grinch said. "We're improving, but good defenses make good offenses earn every inch. We're not there yet. We give up too many explosive runs."
The Cougars have indeed given up more runs of over 20 yards (19) than they did all of last year (13), and that's something Grinch is working diligently to improve with UCLA's Paul Perkins looming next. There's much regret on the Palouse about two Stanford scampers -- one from Kevin Hogan and one from Christian McCaffrey -- that totaled over 100 yards of offense and cost Washington State a marquee upset win. The Cardinal held on for a 30-28 victory.
"Our charge is to hold the opposing offense to one less point than what we score," Grinch said. "That's something we've achieved six times this year, but we came up two points short that time. So you're never satisfied. You find yourself on Sundays being frustrated with the plays you don't make."
Despite the disappointment against Stanford, the Cougars' overall defensive progress has been undeniable. They're allowing only 27 points per game, down from 35.3 points per game last season.
"Confidence only really increases when you get confidence from results," Grinch said. "And when guys see it work, they feel themselves getting better."
Coaches have special praise for walk-on Parker Henry, who has solidified the linebacking corps with a critical ability to defend the pass as an unconventional nickel back. The disruptive presences of Darryl Paulo and newcomer Hercules Mata'afa have fortified the front, while middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer leads the team with 76 tackles.
Grinch credits much of his unit's improvement to Washington State's own offense: The Cougars must face quarterback Luke Falk, who leads the nation with 3,736 passing yards, on Tuesday and Wednesday during each week of practice.
"Shame on us if we don't use that to our advantage," Grinch said. "You're going to find what issues you have as a defense if there are any. Because he's going to find them and expose you."
Plenty of practice embarrassment has gradually sharpened a Cougars' unit that staggered through 2014, bleeding points and yardage at the most inopportune times. This is by no means a defensive juggernaut yet, but it's certainly not a blind squirrel anymore. It's still a flawed unit, but it's one that's playing with an aggressive purpose -- and that's made a significant difference on the Palouse.
"Defense is all about reaction," Grinch said. "Se we don't talk to the guys in grays. We try to talk in blacks and whites. That's given them the confidence to play fast... There certainly have been some positives, but there's certainly a long way to go."