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Originally published Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 8:13 PM

Washington State defense showing some early-season swagger

Coordinator Chris Ball says the unit is much improved from 2010.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Chas Sampson, a 25-year-old Army veteran, had the honor of leading the Washington State... Read more

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PULLMAN — At a school that has turned out quarterbacks like Jack Thompson, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser, the focus usually tends to be on offense.

Especially at a time when Washington State will be without its starting quarterback, Jeff Tuel, for an extended period.

But the WSU defense has done its best to steal some of that notice through two games, pitching first-half shutouts against Idaho State and UNLV, the latter one evolving toward a 59-7 victory here Saturday.

Chris Ball, the WSU defensive coordinator, didn't shy away from saying that the Cougars have made serious strides from 2010, when they were 118th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, allowing 467 yards a game.

"I think we do have something going," he said after the Cougars had allowed UNLV 158 yards. "I think we're fast, I think we're smart. We're a year older. I think we're stronger. We have some confidence, some swagger."

UNLV actually was more successful offensively last week against Wisconsin, amassing 292 yards. The Rebels rushed for 146 against the Badgers, 126 against WSU.

"Our front seven is playing way better than we thought they would, especially the inside guys, the tackles," Ball said.

Sampson's moment

Chas Sampson, a 25-year-old Army veteran, had the honor of leading the Washington State team out of the tunnel to start the game, bearing the American flag to commemorate Sunday's 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

"It was great," said Sampson. "I don't know any other word to describe it."

Sampson, 6 feet 4 and 304 pounds, went to high school in North Carolina, then on to Winston-Salem State. But he was academically ineligible there and decided on the Army, serving 4 ½ years.

He did a stint at Fort Lewis, and was overseas for 15 months in a combat brigade in Iraq.

"I'd say it was breathtaking," he said of the Iraq duty. "I was like 21, 22 years old. It grew me up."

Sampson enrolled at Washington State for fall semester and was just converted to the offensive line, where he's a reserve.

As for his part in commemorating the anniversary of 9/11, he said, "A lot of people lost their lives. And more people lost their lives fixing 9/11. It was the greatest honor. It was overwhelming to me."

Notes

• Washington State had to take a timeout during some first-quarter defensive confusion over substitutions, and DT Brandon Rankin and CB Daniel Simmons barked visibly at one another over who was right about the correct sub.

Afterward, Cougars coach Paul Wulff said, "We made sure they kissed and made up. But I don't mind that. It shows they care."

• The Cougars' total of 123 points is their highest in any two-game span since the 1907 team put up 132 in its first two games, beating Eastern Washington 46-0 and Blair Business College 86-0.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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