WSU Football 5 Stages of Grief in New Mexico Bowl Pt. 4: Dealing with Mike Breske’s Defensive Woes


Dec 21, 2013; Albuquerque, NM, USA; Washington State Cougars nose tackle Ioane Gauta (95) loses his helmet as he tackles Colorado State Rams running back Kapri Bibbs (5) in the second quarter during the Gildan New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the Bowl loss on Saturday, it was pretty clear people were not happy with the defense of Washington State. How could they be, they gave up nearly 600 yards of total offense and ultimately 48 points to the MWC’s Colorado State. COLORADO STATE! The Huskies mustered half of that point total, the Wildcats mustered a third of that against this same defense. But did it have to happen against the Rams?

Mike Breske is the guy who’s seat got heated on Saturday afternoon, in the eyes of the fans at least, more than Leach or any other coach really. I wouldn’t say or think that it is hot, but it definitely went from all cloth to all leather with a built-in heating mechanism.

You thought Washington State had improved on defense in 2013, didn’t you? I did. Mostly we go back to the Auburn game (only giving up 31 to an explosive offense and 7 of those on special teams) a shutout against Idaho, a 17 point showing against Arizona and a 7 point pin-down against USC when you think of the resurgence of a form of tough defense on the Palouse. However a quick glance at the stats may shock you, it did me.

Breske’s 2013 club forced 9 more turnovers, meaning they learned to be opportunistic. They squatted on routes, stripped more at the football, and usually got more than one guy to a pile. But those habits were also part of the problem. Double moves constantly won against our secondary, the strip attempts generally meant a missed tackle and at times everybody expected someone else to make a tackle.

So the turnovers were up, but everything else was an identical stat line (through 12 games) to the year before. Wait, what? Yes an identical stat line hovers around nearly every defensive category except turnovers. I don’t want to get into the exact numbers, but you can go to CFBStats for the proof in the puddin’.

While it’s clear the defense took some good steps forward in 2013 at times, it’s also pretty clear that there were some giant steps back. Arizona State was a big one, Oregon State and Stanford were two others and of course Oregon laid the points on thick as well. The Cougars still gave up 50 plus points in four contests, then of course 48 in the final outing. I know college football has become a scorer’s paradise, but those are bad numbers at any level. You can’t win that way, not the way Mike Leach wants to win.

So Breske has to figure something out. It could be that the talent just isn’t up to snuff in the positions he needs it to be, or maybe the pieces just don’t fit like they were supposed to. At the BUCK position for example (Breske’s Wildcard position of stand up defensive end, drop out linebacker or hand in the turf run stuffer),  Destiny Vaeao at 297 lbs was a terrific idea because of his tremendous athleticism, but boy did that turn out disappointingly. He’s simply not fast enough to do what is required in coverage and Kache Palacio came on late and did some good things in passing situations, but that position obviously still lacks the play maker it needs to cover backs and tight ends down the field.

With Palacio’s emergence, Ivan McLennan stepping in after redshirting for his junior year and the two kids coming from the Islands, it might be time to put Vaeao inside a spot and use him as a DE/DT type player, where his size is better suited and he can use that athleticism to attack the quarterback or make plays down the line. That’s something the Cougs still lack as well, a guy that can chase down a play from the backside before it ever gets to the second level. After all, Ioane Gauta is graduating and Vaeao fits the bill as an immediate replacement (not directly, necessarily but as an addition to the rotation), especially considering that lack of backside pursuit. Maybe that was the plan all along and Breske just wanted to find a way to get Vaeao on the field in the meantime, who knows?

The secondary will be young again and Breske is the DB coach, so he’ll need to find something that works back there. Daquawn Brown hit a little bit of a freshman wall about halfway through the season, but he returns along with standout practice player Charleston White on the corner. I think it’ll be Brown and a new guy, we’ll discuss that more in the coming month as the 2014 class finalizes.

Taylor Taliulu returns and the Cougs are pretty well set with David Bucannon, Darius Lemora or Isaac Dotson coming back at the other safety spot. Of course Deone Bucannon is going to be graduated and out, so the secondary will by-and-large be pretty young overall. The backers lose Sagote…

I mean, you get it. The Cougars have holes to fill but outside of immediately replacing Bucannon’s production they certainly aren’t impossible to fill. That’s what college football is all about.

But Breske has got to figure this out. The Cougar’s identity on defense is lacking… nay, it’s non existent. Opportunistic is the word most commonly used among the announcing teams, but it’s a cop-out explanation for a lost 3-4-hybrid scheme. It’s a great concept, but because it changes so often, they can’t even describe it… uh, well the Cougars are “opportunistic” in it. That’s true, the turnovers created by a veteran secondary make that work, but at the same time that secondary gets toasted like Marshmallows when it’s not creating turnovers? Come on.

Look at the New Mexico Bowl as a prime example; in the first part of the first half the Cougars blitz the crap out of the Rams’ offense and with seemingly high success, the Cougs were up 35-13 and stomping a major cleat into CSU’s face! But as the game wore on, it became a less aggressive, more preventative shell that gave way to huge plays and far too many first downs.

While you were thinking of Halliday’s record setting 37-58, 410 yard, 6 touchdown performance against that terrible Rams’ secondary, did you remember to glance at the stats from CSU’s quarterback? He made the Cougar corners look like the practice squad at CSU! 31-51, 369 yards, 2 touchdowns and the all important “W”. Bibbs ran for 169 and 3 touchdowns on top of that, adding to the ridiculous numbers. The Rams took the first down crown 29-24 in the game.

Something has to change. I love Breske as a coach, a lot. Mike Leach also loves Breske and the rest of his coaching staff, he tells recruits that it’s the best staff he’s ever assembled (like he’d say anything else). But the defense has to start producing better numbers, better outings, more consistent efforts. Yeah, give it up to the four games they won in grand fashion much by themselves, but the fact that the numbers are so identical in year two as they were in year one suggests there’s a problem and with the doubled win total, that problem is not necessarily on offense.

Unlike with Leach, WSU fans are right to be questioning if it’s time to replace Breske, even though that’s not the right move yet. Look, you can’t give up 7 to USC and 17 to Arizona and then go out and give up 38 to Utah and 48 to Colorado State. Even if the offense did put you in a bad position at the end of the game, that’s just not gonna fly.

Part of the “our team’s got to be tougher” mentality and play that Leach talks about extends directly to being able to walk on the field as a defense and stop a middle-of-the-road Mountain West Conference team when your offense drops the ball, up 8, with under 2:00 to go. I mean maybe they weren’t at their best or whatever but Utah State shut the Rams out!

So yes, there is a problem. But the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in a new coach, not yet.

Another year for improvement is deserved, then I think we’ll see where that leaves us in the Breske tenure. For now, just know that the likable defensive coordinator and his team on defense will work to get better. An identity must be formed. It won’t be easy, but they need to show major improvement next year or Leach might start to think about something else.