Washington State's success surprising
Here's a list of the best six teams in college football over the past three years: Miami, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, Texas and that little school way up in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, ranking Washington State sixth on that list with a 27-6 record is a bit misleading. The Cougars of Pullman, Washington -- located 67 miles south of Spokane and 360 miles east of Seattle -- have won just one less game than Ohio State, Georgia and Texas since 2001.
Washington State's ascendancy is remarkable. The sixth-ranked Cougars, who visit No. 3 USC on Saturday in the Pac-10 game of the year, are headed toward their third consecutive Top-10 finish after winning just 10 games from 1998 to 2000.
They won just three Pac-10 games during that span. Now they've won 10 of their last 11 conference road games.
While the other five teams on the previous list are brimming with former Parade Magazine and USA Today prep All-Americans, the Cougars have none of those. Zero.
Washington State, instead, beats the bushes for athletes with speed and attitude who are overlooked by bigger schools. Guys like sophomore linebacker Will Derting, who hails from isolated Okanogan, Wash. (population, 2,500) and has been named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week three times this season.
Washington State's coaches turn running backs and safeties into linebackers, track stars into receivers and even quarterbacks into defensive lineman. They plumb small high schools and junior colleges for guys who fit into their system and then they coach 'em up.
It's about seeing the potential star lurking inside a nobody. And that approach is working, recruiting rankings be damned.
"It should give us all hope," Arizona's interim coach Mike Hankwitz said. "You've got to give them credit for evaluating and developing talent."
Not only that, Washington State has rolled to a 7-1 record after replacing its long-time coach, Mike Price, and the player whom Price called the MVP of the history of Washington State football, quarterback Jason Gesser.
Despite massive change -- cornerback Marcus Trufant and defensive end Rien Long also headed off to the NFL -- Washington State leads the Pac-10 in nine statistical categories, including passing offense, total and scoring defense, turnover margin and sacks.
The Cougars have outscored their opponents 89-15 in the first quarter and have trailed just three times this season.
How many teams can turn the ball over seven times and still beat a quality opponent? Washington State did, slipping Oregon State 36-30 last weekend.
That won't work against USC, which has played as well as any team in the nation since sleepwalking through a defeat at California.
Washington State, despite its success, remains an unknown quantity. It's beaten just three teams with winning records and its opponents this season are a combined 24-38. An overtime loss at Notre Dame, a pounding of Colorado and a bludgeoning of Oregon don't look as good now, judging by what those teams have done since then.
That's a big reason why the Cougars are double-digit underdogs this weekend, despite beating the Trojans last year.
While the solid play of quarterback Matt Kegel -- though he wasn't so solid while throwing five interceptions against the Beavers -- has most often been cited as the reason Washington State again is battling for the Pac-10 title, it's been an aggressive defense that has keyed the success this season.
The Cougars defensive philosophy is pretty simple: attack. They have 149 sacks since 2000, most in the nation over the past four seasons, and 85 interceptions, sixth most since 1999.
Sometimes they give up big plays, but most of the time it's the opposing offense that pays. The overall results have been sound. They rank 18th in the nation in both scoring (16.9 points per game) and total defense (303.75 yards per game).
"They do have a boldness about them, about coming after you," USC coach Pete Carroll said.
But first-year coach Bill Doba, who was elevated from defensive coordinator when he replaced Price, doesn't believe there's anything special about the Cougars pressure scheme.
"The biggest reason our defense is successful is the kids who are playing it," Doba said. "You can scheme and blitz, but if you don't have players, you don't have a chance."
The Cougars don't rely on one defensive star, though Derting and cornerback Jason David (five interceptions) likely will be All-Conference selections. Thirteen players have sacks this season and six average between 6.5 and 4.5 tackles per game.
So if it's the players, how do the Cougars find and convince them to come to Pullman, which hovers around freezing four months of the year?
Doba talks about the charms of Pullman as a safe college town and stuff like that, but it really comes down to finding proverbial diamonds in the rough. Most Cougars didn't have a lot of options.
And now this rag-tag bunch is another surprising performance away from grabbing the pole position in the Rose Bowl race.
"I wish I could tell you we have some magical formula," Doba said. "Sometimes it's just luck. We have to take chances on kids and when chances work out, suddenly you become a genius."
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.