Mike Leach with a defense is a terrifying concept, like poisonous bees, snakes that can fly or sharks with legs.
Some things are scary enough without doing things they're not supposed to do. Leach's teams are never known for their defense. Before Leach installed his Air Raid offense at Texas Tech in 2000, spread offenses were still mostly a gimmick. Today, if you spun a wheel with all 130 FBS teams on it, odds are you'd land on a program that runs a spread attack.
"We're the other side of the ball to the Air Raid," Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch told Sports on Earth this week. "I don't have many conversations like this, talking about our defense."
Grinch could be having plenty more soon. Washington State has a defense, and it's shaking up the entire Pac-12. Just ask USC, who put up season lows in points (27) and yards (327) against the Cougars last week. Wazzu handed the preseason national title contenders their first loss of the season and kicked down the door into the playoff discussion room.
Leach and Grinch have teamed up to push the 5-0 Cougars to No. 11 in both polls, on track to challenge the league's other preseason national title contender, Washington, for the Pac-12 North crown. They'll face another tough test this week at Oregon, which will host the Cougars on their first road trip of the season.
In Leach's first five seasons, his defense never ranked higher than 73rd in defensive yards per play. It ranks 19th this season. Bringing back nine starters from last year's team helps, led by defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa, whose 10 tackles for loss rank fifth nationally.
"We hit a stride mid to late last year and we improved from there," Leach said. "I think some of that has to do with the fact we played a bunch of young guys and now they've at least got some game experience behind them and they built on that and they knew their role in the offseason. They've just continued to elevate."
You can thank Grinch for that. A 31-13 loss to rival Washington in the 2014 finale ended a third consecutive losing season for Leach on the Palouse. He fired defensive coordinator Mike Breske and went on the hunt, eyeing big names with experience.
Six weeks later, he ended up bringing aboard Grinch, then a 34-year-old safeties coach from Missouri who he'd never met previously and had never coordinated a defense. Grinch had been eyeing a move up after a pair of SEC East titles and 23 wins at Mizzou in the previous two seasons. He casually mentioned his interest to David Yost, a former Missouri coordinator who had been coaching inside receivers on Leach's staff. Yost promised to mention his name to Leach, and a few days later, Grinch was on a plane to Pullman.
"If you talk to coach Leach, you know part of it was just finding your opportunities to speak when you're around him," Grinch said. "As much as anything, I was just a good listener."
Leach was impressed enough to end his lengthy search. Grinch couldn't ask for a better spot. He wasn't being hired by a defensive veteran to run his defense. He wasn't trying to rebuild a disastrous situation at a small school.
Leach was giving him the keys to do whatever he wanted, so long as he got it fixed. Leach never suffered through a losing season at Texas Tech, but he went 3-9 in two of his first three seasons at Washington State.
"I knew it had to work," Grinch said. "If it doesn't, you might not be in this situation very long."
Grinch got started and built his defense around two things: black-and-white concepts and an concrete identity.
The first was based on simplicity: Stay out of gray areas and put players in positions to succeed. For example, Grinch doesn't ask his linebackers to cover the running back unless the quarterback rolls out. "Unless" might as well be a four-letter word in the Cougars' defense.
"Then a guy's asking, 'Well, which is more important, coach?'" Grinch said. "Those are things we don't do with our guys."
Keep it simple and don't require players to make tons of post-snap decisions, cutting down on busts. Players play fast and free, and when Grinch looks at tape, he knows he'll find effort.
"Our guys play real hard," Leach said, "and they know their role better and they're more invested in what he's teaching and what we're trying to do."
The defense needed speed, too, so he prioritized it in recruiting and moved safeties to linebackers and linebackers to edge rushers in the meantime.
Grinch loves to re-watch a game and be confused. He'll watch a play and sees his defensive linemen in the backfield but hopes he can't immediately tell the difference: Was that a run blitz or did our guys just react instantly to the run?
It's happening more than ever these days.
"If you're seeing that multiple times a game," Grinch said, "you know you're playing the right way."
And right away, Grinch knew the identity his unit needed to have. They want to be the guys who give the ball back to the offense.
"It's one thing if people think you're the other side of the Air Raid," Grinch said. "We can't think that."
Grinch had previously done a three-year study and learned teams that forced at least 24 turnovers won an average of nine games. Washington State had forced eight turnovers the year before Grinch arrived and won three games.
It was simple, and his defense embraced it.
"We threw it in their face," Grinch said. "Harped on it and harped on it. I don't know what other statistic we had a chance to be successful in that first year. The ball doesn't know where it's supposed to go. Washington State can get the ball out just like anyone else."
The Cougars forced 24 takeaways in Year 1 under Grinch and won ... yep, nine games. They forced 23 in Year 2 and won eight. It ate at everyone, but eight was still more games than Wazzu had won under Leach before Grinch's arrival.
This year, the Cougars are back on track for more, forcing 12 turnovers in five games, tied for sixth-most nationally.
Leach has a defense, one of the best he's had in 16 seasons as a head coach. He's won more than nine games only once, but this team could give him a second trip into the double digits.
Leach took a risk on Grinch, and it's paying off to make this his scariest Washington State team yet.