Oct. 30, 2001
Defensive lineman aren't normally tagged as "playmakers." That description for a football player who is capable of turning the tide of a game in an instant is usually reserved for quarterbacks, wide receivers, or defensive backs. But make no mistake, Washington State sophomore defensive end DD Acholonu is a playmaker.
It didn't take long for the Washington State coaching staff to figure that out. Despite coming to Pullman as a lean, 6-3, 205-pound project, defensive ends coach Robb Akey and company saw something they liked and decided not to redshirt the Seattle native.
That decision paid dividends throughout the 2000 season, but never more so than against USC. With quarterback Jason Gesser out with a broken leg and a bowl game already out of the question, the Cougars shocked the Trojans in Los Angeles. WSU fans were treated to the first "big play" of Acholonu's career when he changed the momentum of the contest with a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Between last November and the beginning of the 2001 season, Acholonu bulked up to around 240 pounds and began amazing teammates with his blend of strength and speed that turned him into a quarterback's worst nightmare.
"DD is tough to block," Cougar tight end Mark Baldwin said. "He is just so dang fast, it's incredible."
Despite adding 35 pound to his frame in less than two years, Acholonu says speed is still the most dangerous aspect of his game.
"I think I am a little quicker than I was before. I think I have a better reaction and better movement," Acholonu said. "I wouldn't say that I'm faster on the track, but I'm still pretty fast on the football field. If I'm one of the quicker defensive linemen in the Pac-10, I should be able to make play after play after play. That's how I've been approaching things. I have to be able to make plays and just get better."
That approach has yielded stunning results. Through seven games, the Inglemoor High School product has nine tackles for loss resulting in negative 56 yards, seven sacks, he has forced a fumble, and recovered a fumble. DeWayne Patterson beware, there is a new sackmaster on the Palouse.
Acholonu's sack total is tied for second in the Pac-10, and with one more he will move to seventh on the WSU single-season list, ahead of names like Mark Fields and Tim Downing. Fellow sophomore defensive end Isaac Brown, a 6-3, 221-pound speed pass rusher, has six sacks. Their speed coming off the ends has helped turn the Cougar defense into one of the Pac-10's best.
"I don't think anybody is as quick as us," Acholonu said. "I haven't seen anybody, but we are still young. We are learning. We have to get better and make sure that we are taking care of our jobs."
Acholonu, who owns the Inglemoor High School single-season sack record with 17, did more than just take care of his job in the Oct. 13 showdown with Stanford. He took over the game, running down Cardinal quarterback Randy Fasani for three sacks, and recording a tackle for loss.
"In that game, no one was doing anything and somebody had to do something," Acholonu, whose real name is Dilibe, said. "I told myself that I was going to step up and make plays. It's kind of like being pushed into a wall and someone has got to give the team energy. I think that's the reason I had to step up, and I did."
A week later against Montana State, Acholonu once again delivered a big play, turning a lackluster early effort by the Cougars into a trip behind the woodshed for the Bobcats. On a first and 10 for MSU at the Washington State 13-yard line, the former Kingco athlete of the year hit slammed quarterback Tyler Thomas and forced a fumble. That turnover eventually turned into six points for the Cougs, as Jason Gesser hit running back John Tippins for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
Unfortunately, Acholonu didn't get credit for the sack because the pigskin rolled past the line of scrimmage into the hands of Fred Shavies.
"That should have been a sack," Acholonu joked. "We won and that turned the game around though, so it doesn't really matter."
What does matter to the pass rushing phenomenon is the number 48. That's the number of sacks the 1989 Washington State defense recorded, a school record. Acholonu and his mates on the defensive line want to break that record.
"It's a big goal for us. We have a lot of talent on the defensive line," Acholonu, who has five brothers and sisters, said. "We have Tai (Tupai), Rien Long, Isaac (Brown), Fred (Shavies), Tupo (Tuupo), Jeremey Williams, and Cookie (Steve Cook) and we should be quick enough to get that record."
With 26 sacks through seven games, the Cougars are going to need 5.5 per outing. Looks like it's time for DD to start making plays.