KNOW YOUR ENEMY: Previewing the Washington State Offense

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Previewing Wazzu's offensive personnel and Mike Leach's Air Raid Offense ahead of Cal's trip to the Palouse on Saturday.


I love this man. Good for the sport, great for the conference.

I don't like the idea of playing against him, though. But this is a serious transition year for the Cougar offense, and they're still working out the kinks. Will they be dialed in this Saturday in Pullman? Hope not!

For those unfamiliar or who have repressed all memories of the 2004 Holiday Bowl vs Texas Tech, here's a quick and simple summary of the Air Raid Offense we will see in the Palouse this weekend: It is a shotgun-based offense that utilizes four wide receivers and one running back (no tight end). It is very heavy on the pass, frequently using the short passing game as a replacement for the run and relying on receivers catching the ball in space to move the chains. It's high-tempo and puts heavy responsibility on the quarterback to make proper reads and audibles. When it gets rolling, the Air Raid puts a lot of pressure on a defense...and mistakes in coverage often lead to easy points. So basically, this offense feasts on undisciplined/unopportunistic defenses.

Below we'll take a look at the projected offensive starters for Wazzu and discuss what we should expect from them...and from Cal's defense. Was the defensive effort against UCLA the start of a turnaround or an aberration? Maybe neither? MAYBE BOTH!?

2012 Thus Far: 2-4 (0-3 in Pac-12)

Week 1: Lost @ BYU (6-30)

Week 2: Won vs EWU (24-20)

Week 3: Won @ UNLV (35-27)

Week 4: Lost vs Colorado (34-35)

Week 5: Lost vs Oregon (26-51)

Week 6: Lost @ Oregon State (6-19)

2012 OFFENSIVE STATS

Passing- 312 yards/game (15th)

Rushing- 41.33 yards/game (123rd)

Scoring- 21.8 points/game (100th)

QB

STARTER: Connor Halliday, Sophomore - 6'4, 190 lbs

There's a bit of a QB controversy brewing in the Pallouse these days. Mike Leach announced on Tuesday that he would go with sophomore Connor Halliday as the starter, but there is a distinct possibility that we also see senior Jeff Tuel this Saturday in Pullman. This speaks to the fact that Leach clearly believes Halliday is more capable of running the Air-Raid Offense Leach is so known for. And he's probably right. Halliday has a big arm and isn't afraid to get rid of the ball quickly...although at times to disastrous effect. After Tuel started the first two games of the 2012 season, Halliday got the nod in Week 3 and strung together his two best performances of the 2012 season against UNLV (378 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 picks) and Colorado (401 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 picks). He was benched in favor of Tuel last week against Oregon State after an absolute shocker, going 9 for 20 for 81 yards and 3 interceptions before being yanked in the 3rd quarter. On the season, Halliday has thrown for 1284 yards, 9 touchdowns and 9 interceptions...while completing almost 54% of his passes. Tuel has thrown for 588 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions...and has completed 70% of his passes. Tuel is more accurate and careful with the ball (as the completion percentage would attest to), but to a fault. The Air Raid Offense is comprised of quick passes and 3-step drops, and Tuel often times will hold the ball too long and end up taking a sack or missing a window to make the throw. So while Halliday may be more reckless with the ball, he does get it out fast...which is what is needed for the Air Raid to work. And this offense generates a lot of yards through the air; Wazzu is 15th nationally in passing yards per game.

Upside: Arm, Pass-happy offense, Leach

Downside: Favre-ian interceptions, experience, offensive line

What to Expect:

40+ pass attempts, for good or bad. If we fail to generate any pressure, we're dead. Conversely, if we can generate pressure with a 3 or 4-man rush and hurry Halliday a bit, there's a high likelihood that he'll gift wrap a few for us. He may do that even without any pressure, but I wouldn't take any chances. I think we can bring some heat with a minimal rush, while also dropping 7 or 8 defenders in coverage. I'd anticipate a 4-2-5 look, with Scarlett or McCain sometimes dropping back and sometimes rushing. Some disguised blitzes to keep Halliday guessing would be good too, as he's been fooled before and demonstrated a tendency to force a ball into some bad spots. Basically, we can do many of the same things that we did against UCLA last week. I do think he'll get his yards though, and I'm okay with that. We just need to nut up in the red zone. This is a team that's averaging just 22 points per game, so it's not as if that's an impossible task. But we're not the most consistent team defensively, so it's not exactly a foregone conclusion that we can duplicate the past success of others. I do expect Halliday to throw on us to the tune of 300 or so yards, but if we can keep his completions down around 55% and pick him off a couple times we should be fine.

RB

STARTER: Carl Winston, Senior - 5'8, 192 lbs OR Teondray Caldwell, Freshman (RS) - 5'8, 189 lbs

The running game, on the other hand, is 123rd nationally and unspectacular in every way. It's been largely a non-factor for the Cougars against FBS opponents (they did "gash" EWU for 108 yards in week 2). When you remove yardage lost due to sacks, the Cougars rush for 63.3 yards per game. The two backs we will see the most are redshirt frosh Teondray Caldwell (36 carries for 163 yards ...4.53 YPC) and senior Carl Winston (44 carries for 181 yards and 2 TDs...4.1 YPC) . Caldwell has been tabbed as the starter the last couple weeks, but we will see both guys in some capacity. They're a similar size (small) and similarly under-utilized week to week. Somewhat surprisingly, neither guy is used a ton in the passing game either, with Winston having 7 catches for 27 yards and Caldwell having 8 catches for...0 yards through 6 games. Caldwell is a pretty effective kick returner though. As a team, Wazzu has only rushed for 80 or more yards twice this season...against Eastern Washington and Colorado.

Upside: Pass-blocking?

Downside: Poor run offense

What to Expect:

If Wazzu can run on us, we've got a serious problem. Their offensive line struggles to get any push, and their shotgun offense renders most of their rush attack pretty one-dimensional between delayed handoffs and draws. Neither Winston nor Caldwell are big enough to be effective inside runners, and while Caldwell does possess some good speed and vision, I don't see either guy as being capable of really doing significant, consistent damage to us on the ground. Which may be a bit delusional, considering we've been pretty shitty against the run this year. In fact, we're nestled between previous Wazuu opponents like Colorado (74th) and UNLV (84th) in rushing defense. But we won't be challenged this week on the ground. It's not who the Cougs are, and it's not what Leach wants to do. And since neither Winston or Caldwell is heavily utilized in the passing game, there's not much more to say. Consider my limited time spent on this group to be a kiss of death for us. But probably not.


WR

STARTERS:

Marquess Wilson, Junior - 6'4, 185 lbs

Gabe Marks, Freshman - 6', 167 lbs

Isiah Myers, Sophomore - 6', 176 lbs

Brett Bartolone, Freshman - 5'10, 179 lbs

Leach's Cougars live and die by the pass, so this is the group we'll need to be most aware of. Thus far, they've been somewhat inconsistent and have struggled gaining route separation when faced matched up with better secondaries. Marquess Wilson is a fairly well-known commodity at this point. He's a rangy, talented deep-threat guy, and the main danger through the air for the Cougars. Wilson had a slow start to the year, but made up for it with a very productive stretch against UNLV, Colorado and Oregon when he totaled 22 catches for 391 yards and all 5 of his touchdown catches in that three-game span. On the year, he's caught 34 balls for 553 yards and the aforementioned 5 touchdowns. He's a tough matchup, and is targeted A LOT. True frosh Gabe Marks (24 catches for 379 yards, 2 TD's) has really come on strong for the Cougars, and has had a couple 100+ yard receiving games. He's talented, but still young and has had trouble with the better defenses the Cougars have seen. Still, he's a quality second option to Wilson in this offense. Behind Marks and Wilson, it gets a little foggier. At various points this season, Isiah Myers (28/252/4 TD's), Brett Bartolone (26/223/1 TD) and Gino Simone (11/158) have all stepped up and had nice games. It appears Leach is still tinkering with just the right mix of guys though, as Myers has faded a bit while Simone and Bartolone have each been targeted more frequently the last two weeks. Regardless of who is lined up with Wilson and Marks, this offense is designed to create problems for secondaries if wideouts are able to create separation and find holes in coverage. While they have yet to really put it all together, shutting them down will be a challenge.

Upside: Mike Leach, Marquess Wilson

Downside: Drops, consistency, experience

What to Expect:

This will be another opportunity for our secondary to really step up. Given the offense, we'll likely be spending a lot of time in nickel and dime packages. Seeing what Kam Jackson was able to do last weekend was massively encouraging, and the news that Marc Anthony will be a go for this weekend means we should have some quality cover guys available. The improved safety play from Michael Lowe and Avery Sebastian should also free up Josh Hill to play the nickel. I like the look of that secondary. But they're gonna be challenged. We'll need to have safety help available for Wilson specifically, and with Leach's offense attacking the seams quite a bit there will be chances for both Lowe and Sebastian to make some plays. I'd like to see that last week against UCLA wasn't an aberration, and Halliday should provide our secondary with some opportunities to pick a couple balls off. This should also be interesting for our young inside linebackers, who will be asked to man the middle of the field against crossing routes. Both Forbes and Jefferson have struggled with reads at times, but have come along well with their coverage. Gonna be a big test for them too. I'm optimistic that we're up to the task, but my optimism on these posts typically comes with terribly consequences. Consider yourselves warned.

OL

STARTERS:

LT- Gunnar Eklund, Freshman (RS) - 6'7, 286 lbs

LG- John Fulington, Junior - 6'5, 300 lbs

C- Elliot Bosch, Junior - 6'4, 271 lbs

RG- Matt Goetz, Sophomore - 6'4, 272 lbs

RT- Jake Rodgers, Sophomore - 6'6, 300 lbs

This group has struggled, and the staff has tried to move guys around in an effort to get the 5 best available guys on the field. This week, the group looks like this. Eklund is a redshirt frosh and former walkon who was thrust into the starting lineup when expected starting tackle Rico Forbes was lost for the year in fall camp and 5th year senior Dan Spitz was out with ‘personal problems" for several weeks, prior to leaving the program. He's played decently, starting the last three games at left tackle. I'd consider left guard John Fullington to be Wazzu's best offensive linemen, and he started all 12 games at left guard for them in 2011. He's capable of playing tackle as well, as he did the first two games of the season. Center Elliot Bosch is, like Eklund, a former walkon. Thus far in 2012, Bosch is the only offensive linemen to have started every game at the same position. Matt Goetz started 9 games at center in 2011, and has started at right guard the last two weeks. He's undersized and has struggled against more physical fronts like that of Oregon State. Jake Rodgers had served as the starting right guard for the first three games, but was moved to right tackle when Wade Jacobson went down against Colorado. Jacobson did get some snaps against Oregon State, so we may see him worked back in more again this Saturday. On the year, this group has surrendered 21 sacks, and has been largely inconsistent with penalties and missed assignments. Sounds familiar! As previously noted, they've had a particularly tough time run-blocking. That could be attributed to inexperience at a few spots, a constantly fluctuating group of starters, or the fact that they're a bit undersized. All good things for us.

Upside: The Air Raid means short drops for the quarterback...which should mean less time for these guys to give up a sack.

Downside: Run-blocking, experience, consistency, depth, FAT LITTLE GIRLFRIENDS?!

What to Expect:

The wide splits that Leach's offensive lines employ are meant to make it more challenging for the outside rushers to get to the quarterback quickly. That's all fine and dandy unless the interior of your line is getting its ass kicked. And with a starting lineup that seems to be in some flux, along with limited experience at several spots, we should be able to win the battle up front. Wazzu has struggled on the line, and I think we showed against UCLA last week that we have the horses to really punish inexperienced OL's when given the chance...and when a good scheme is employed. While this may not result in a bunch of sacks due to Halliday (theoretically) getting rid of the ball quickly, hurrying him will be important in easing the stress the Air Raid will put on our secondary. This is a game where I'd have really liked to have seen Todd Barr and that first step really do soem damage. Sounds like he may not suit up though. That said, I still like the size and strength of our front in this matchup. Could be a game where we see DeAndre Coleman really make an impact, or another nice effort from Kendrick Payne.

IN SUMMARY

Our 5 previous FBS opponents have all had offenses ranked in the top 50 nationally, with SC bringing up the rear at 48th. Wazzu is currently sitting at 98th in the country in total offense. A juggernaut, they are not. Wazzu is one-dimensional, and not executing that single dimension at the highest level right now. Unfortunately, our defense has been inconsistent at best and mediocre at worst. While last week of UCLA was a nice ray of sunshine, it remains to be seen if we can maintain the level of effort and execution defensively that we demonstrated in that game. The fact that this game is one the road, and the Cougs probably see us as one of the softer games remaining on their schedule (the feeling is mutual, BTW), means they will be fired up.

We could lose this game. Easily. But we shouldn't. We should win comfortably. Stay tuned, it should be interesting either way.

GO BEARS!

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