Washington St Houston Football

Houston running back Patrick Carr (right) stiff-arms Washington State defender Willie Taylor III during Friday's game. The Cougars allowed Houston to run for 239 yards, something defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys hopes to button up for Saturday's home game against UCLA.

PULLMAN — Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys prides himself on teaching players to tackle well against spread offenses.

He just wishes his 2019 team would start doing that.

Conversely, UCLA coach Chip Kelly prides himself on using spread tactics to make defenders miss.

He just wishes his 2019 team would start doing that.

One of these coaches is likely to get his wish when No. 19 Washington State plays host to winless UCLA at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Martin Stadium (ESPN) in a Pac-12 duel of contrasting spread offenses.

Claeys, in his second year, actually is a fan of spread schemes, but he demonstrated to WSU coach Mike Leach his ability to stifle them when he was head coach at Minnesota three years ago. His Gophers squelched the Cougars’ Air Raid attack 17-12 in the 2016 Holiday Bowl.

One key to defending the spread — whether it’s pass- or run-oriented — is making quick, sure tackles in the open field, something the Cougars (3-0) didn’t always do last week in a 31-24 win at Houston.

“Athletes in space — to me, that’s why people should run the spread offense,” Claeys said last week as he prepared for Houston’s run-laden version of the concept. “Get the ball to people in space, and you make people be good tacklers. So we’ll have tackle better.”

It didn’t consistently happen against Houston, which racked up 239 rushing yards. In the first half, the Cougars whiffed at sack attempts and got burned in one-on-one situations at the second level.

They made up for it with ballhawking, and they’re now tied for No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision with seven fumble recoveries. But they’re 103rd in rush defense, allowing 184 yards per game.

Leach saw big improvement at some point last week as the Cougs allowed only 51 yards rushing after halftime until Houston tacked on another 69 on its final touchdown drive.

“The second half, I thought we defended really well,” Leach said. “The one drive, obviously not what we’re looking for. We’ve got to correct that, but we don’t want to overshadow the defensive effort the second half.”

Now the Cougars face a coach in Kelly, who is renowned for hoodwinking defenses with the spread option. But 15 games into his UCLA tenure, Kelly has yet to approximate his success several years ago at Oregon.

The Bruins (0-3) strangely rank 124th in the nation with 78 rushing yards per game. Their dual-threat quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, has been held to 80 gross rushing yards while completing only 54 percent of his passes.

Leach said UCLA is capable of breaking out soon.

“I think they’re an extremely talented team,” he said. “I just don’t think they’re playing together as well as they’d like to right now. But that could happen at any time, and it could happen overnight. As soon as they do, they’re an extremely dangerous team.”

GORDON’S PENALTY, GORDON’S ENERGY — When Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon was slapped with a taunting penalty during the Houston game, observers weren’t necessarily aware of what he had done.

Most eyes and cameras were on Dezmon Patmon, who had just caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Gordon to give Wazzu a 21-14 lead midway through the third quarter.

But Gordon gave reporters a rundown Tuesday after practice.

“Emotions got the best of me, I guess,” he said. “Big game, big moment. ... I didn’t say anything. I threw the touchdown and just kind of stared down (the Houston Cougars’) sideline a little bit, kind of ran down their sideline like an idiot, I guess. Gotta be smarter and avoid stupid penalties for the team.”

The 15 yards were assessed on the ensuing kickoff, resulting on Houston starting its next series on its 31-yard-line. But the Texas team managed just 8 yards and punted.

“We love when our quarterback talks,” WSU safety Bryce Beekman said. “I mean, he brings energy and then we’ve got match his energy. Gordon’s energy is contagious, and that’s a huge part of our team.”

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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