Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Washington State Offense

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

We examine how Mike Leach's Air Raid plans to stretch, confuse, and attack the depleted Cal defense.

"We have met the enemy and they are [us]. " - Oliver Hazard Perry

Bear Raid meets Air Raid. We're not so different, we and the Cougs. Our coaches come from the same family tree. They have struggled with pass protection and running the ball. Even if they don't develop into a juggernaut, they should eventually develop into a respectable team capable of competing with any other Pac-12 team. Of course, the Bears have proven to be a much more fearsome opponent than any of their actual opponents. Turnovers, penalties, poor tackling, and lack of trust on the defense have been serious issues for Cal. So who is the real enemy on Saturday? The Bears or the Cougs?

Scheme

First, I'd like to recognize the terrific efforts of our friends at Coug Center. Their multi-part series on the Wazzu Air Raid is a fantastic introduction to the Cougs' offense. Several of the concepts I describe today are pulled directly from the abundance of posts in that series. Secondly, Smart Football has an equally impressive history of the Air Raid offense. If you have not read it in the past, bookmark it and check it out when you get some free time.

A master of the spread offense, Mike Leach wants to stretch the defense both vertically (downfield) and horizontally (across the field). This will be a common theme throughout this section. To learn more about schematics of spreading the field check out this article by Smart Football.

Now, onto the Cougar passing game. I'm following Coug Center's example by highlighting several concepts. While the exact combination of routes may vary from play to play, these are some basic constants we should repeatedly see on Saturday.

Mesh

The mesh is a staple of Mike Leach's Air Raid.

Mesh_uwplay1_medium

As the image above illustrates, it is characterized by two extremely shallow crossing routes. The Washington State receivers pass each other closely enough that they could high five (and they occasionally do so during practice). The strong-side inside receiver (Y) usually goes slightly deeper, with the weakside inside receiver (H) just under him. Meanwhile the outside receivers head downfield to pull the cornerbacks (and a safety or two) down the field. If the defense devotes too many players to defending the crossing routes, the deep routes will be wide open. Meanwhile, the RB on wheel route may sneak into space. Coug Center explains why this works so well:

The mesh concept works so well because of the stress it puts on both man, and zone defensive coverages. Shallow crossing routes are extremely difficult to guard in man coverage, not only because of the typical speed mismatch of an inside receiver on a linebacker, but also because of the sheer chaos that exists that close to the line of scrimmage. Even referee positioning comes into play because of the cluttered mass of bodies.

The play is not always carried out exactly like the image above. Sometimes an outside receiver or even a RB will run one of the mesh routes.

There are multiple ways this play can succeed.

Here is one example:

Ba-cal-gif---mesh-q1-12

The outside receiver has a pretty easy catch in one-on-one space, but that's not the biggest issue here. Watch the inside receivers on the crossing routes. The one running towards the top of the screen is WIDE open. When the outside linebacker blitzes, that part of the field opens up. The middle linebacker who rotated to that position follows the strongside inside receiver. Meanwhile the traffic created by the dual crossing routes holds up the safety and the other outside linebacker who suddenly finds themselves in no man's land.

The following illustrates what happens when you lose a receiver on the shallow crossing route.  This isn't a true mesh; it's a shallow cross concept (the boundary side outside WR runs the cross) with the RB running a sit/option (HT Carolina Coug).  The receiver running the crossing route loses his defender when his route crosses the RB's route.  The outcome is unpleasant.

Eleventhimage_medium_medium

Did you notice how far the deep route at the top of the screen stretches the defense vertically? Again, these horizontal and vertical aspects can open huge holes in the defense.

The linebackers, particularly, have a lot to keep track of during the mesh play.  In this next clip, watch the poor outside linebacker near the top of the screen. First he has to keep track of one inside receiver on a mesh, then he sees the RB running a wheel route, then he has to come back and try to tackle the other mesh receiver.

Q1-353-full_medium_medium

Defending the mesh takes a lot of discipline.

Here we go again: The outside linebacker goes after the RB's route while Michael Lowe and Avery Sebastian run into each other at the mesh point.

Sixteenthimage_medium_medium

Who needs wide receiver blocking when you can have defenders block each other?

Wheel

The Wheel is a play the Cougs like to run in the red zone. Fundamentally, it's a pretty simple concept. The inside receiver runs a wheel route while the outside receiver usually runs a slant (pictured below) or a curl.

Wheel_double_medium

Simple, yes. Simple to stop, no. Coug Center explains:

Coach Leach likes to use the combination of a wheel route with a curl by the outside receiver. We've seen the other routes vary in some plays, but this particular combination is used heavily, regardless of what the other routes are doing. Any time two receivers cross, man coverage is susceptible. Using the wheel in combination with a curl also allows the route to exploit zone coverage by vertically stressing the sideline zone.

Here the Cougs execute the wheel in the red zone. Michael Lowe falls step behind amid the crossing receivers and gives Bartolone just enough space to haul in his second touchdown of the day.

Ba-cal-gif---wheel-q4-7

Once again, Mike Leach uses traffic against the defense by putting too many bodies in one place at one time (the time when the routes cross).

Four Verts

As the name implies, the Four Verticals concept has all four receivers charging down the field. Coug Center explains the details of spacing in the four verts.

Wide outs will outside release and run upfield just outside the numbers, or on them depending on which hash the ball is spotted. This allows a receiver space to "fade" to the outside on a deep ball. From the top (inside) of the numbers to the sideline is around 9 yards; about 6 yards is needed for the quarterback to drop in a fade over the defender or for the receiver to create some separation on a break.

Inside receivers get down the hash. This creates equal spacing among the deep routes, which translates to a sideline-to-sideline coverage by the defense. The running back is the outlet, setting up in an open pocket underneath.

Fourverts_diagram_medium

On these routes the QB has two throwing options. He can throw a back-shoulder pass so the receiver catches it in stride or he can throw it so the receiver curls back for the ball. If the receiver gains separation from the receiver, the QB will throw the back-shoulder pass; otherwise, he'll throw to the curl route.

Here is the curl version:

Ba-cal-gif---shoulder-q2-12

Although Steve Williams has great coverage on the receiver, there's not much he can do to defend this. If the pass is underthrown, he has a great chance to intercept it. Otherwise, he has to wrap up after the catch and prevent any yards after catch.

I think the following was supposed to be the back shoulder version, but it's underthrown, which forces the receiver to break stride to catch it.

Ba-cal-gif---shoulder-q4-4

This is a tricky play to defend in zone defense. A Cover 2 will have only 2 safeties to guard the routes. 2 on 4 is a terrible matchup and leads to wide open receivers all over the field. If the safety goes inside, the outside receiver will be wide open, and vice versa. A Cover 3 is slightly better, but the defense will still have 3 defenders covering 4 players. Man coverage is ideal here, possibly with a safety covering the top.

And don't forget about the running back's short route.

All Curl

Finally, we'll cover a play that initially looks like the four verts...until the receivers all stop running their routes. This is the All Curl.

The all curl has a few distinct advantages; all receivers will be facing the quarterback, present stationary targets and be scattered across the field sideline to sideline. The receiver will push the first steps of a curl route, selling a vertical to drive the defender deeper before breaking off in an open zone.

Allcurl_uw2_medium

The goal here is to bait the defense into thinking these are vertical routes. When inside receivers make the transition from being covered by linebackers to being covered by safeties, they stop and find that seam in the zone defense. Meanwhile, outside receivers can simply stop while their CBs keep flying downfield. This creates enough space for an easy reception.

H and Y will typically inside release and find the soft spots in the coverage zones between the outside and inside backers on either side, settling in front of the safeties. X and Z will sell verticals and break at 5 yd, turning inside toward the quarterback. Unless the coverage allows them to be a little greedy.

This is a great short yardage option (3rd downs, particularly) because it's such an easy completion. Ideally the receiver will have a bit of space and it's a quick throw.

It's less useful in the red zone because the field is shorter, which means the DBs are less likely to be baited into stretching the field vertically. It also offers limited potential for yards-after-catch. Finally, it's an easy pick six if the pass is late, but that requires the DB to get in position very quickly.

Overall, the themes in these passing concepts are pretty similar: stretch the field, create numerical advantages, and force the defense to communicate well.

Personnel

*Denotes returning starter

Now let's meet the first mates of this Air Raid attack.

Quarterback

*Connor Halliday: 6'4", 190 lbs., Jr.

Austin Apodaca: 6' 3", 190 lbs., Fr.

Connor Halliday is an interesting player. In fact, he reminds me of Zach Maynard. He is capable of having a spectacular game or an abysmal game--you won't know which Halliday shows up until shortly after the game begins. Consider his performances in 2012. During a three-game span early in the season, he passed for 1127 yards (375 yards per game) on 6.83 yards per attempt with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. That's pretty good! His next three games were horrific. He mustered only 172 yards (57 yards per game) on 4.41 yards per attempt with 0 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Jeff Tuel saw much more playing time during that span of time, which explains Halliday's low yardage production. The abysmal inefficiency is less defensible. Naturally, Halliday bounced back with a 330-yard, 7.7 ypa, 5 touchdown-1 interception performance against UCLA.

The same Connor Halliday has returned this season. He had great games against Idaho and Southern Utah as he passed for 728 yards (8.7 ypa), 9 TDs, and 5 interceptions. His other games have been less impressive. Against Auburn, USC, and Stanford, he passed for 743 yards (5.3 ypa), 1 TD, and 6 interceptions. Our pass defense is somewhere between Auburn's and Idaho's, so it's tough to tell which Halliday will show up on Saturday.

Whichever Halliday does show up, he'll never quite live up to his freshman game against ASU in 2011 when he passed for 494 yards (Pac-12 freshman record), a mind-blowing 13.7 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, and 0 interceptions as the Cougs scored a big upset.

Halliday was banged up against Stanford last week and left the game with an apparent hip injury. He has been practicing all week, but if he is unable to play on Saturday we will see backup QB Austin Apodaca. The redshirt freshman is much more mobile than Halliday, whose mobility is somewhere between Nate Longshore and a barnacle. Apodaca won't light up defenses like Marcus Mariota or Taylor Kelly, but he is mobile enough that the defense needs to keep him contained. His passing left something to be desired against Stanford last week. Entering the game when the Cougs were down 24-3, he passed for 138 yards (52% completion, 4.8 ypa), 2 TDs, and an interception.

Pros

  • Halliday is capable of lighting up the opposing defense on any given Saturday
  • Apodaca's mobility can be dangerous in Leach's Air Raid scheme
  • QBs benefitting from improved pass protection

Cons

  • When bad Halliday shows up, he's an inefficient interception machine

Running Backs

Teondray Caldwell: 5' 8", 190 lbs., So.

Marcus Mason: 5' 9", 188 lbs., Jr.

You didn't think I'd even have anything for running backs, did you? I don't blame you. Washington State is last in rushing attempts per game--by a large margin. They're running the ball even less than they did last season. Their running backs aren't bad, however. As a true freshman last season, Teondray Caldwell led the team in rushing, with 269 yards (4.80 yards per carry). He didn't find the end zone on any of his 56 carries, but he proved to be a shifty, elusive back. Fellow RB Marcus Mason is the team's speedster, capable of breaking a long touchdown run...if only his offensive line could open up a hole for him. As we have seen in the mesh and four verts concepts, the running backs are well integrated into the passing game. Mason already has 11 receptions this season.

Jeremiah Laufasa will also see some time at running back. A rugby player, Laufasa is a big, physical back who will be featured in short yardage situations. He is the Cougs' primary option in the red zone. He also did this earlier this season:

Worstrbever_medium

Pros

  • Versatile stable of backs
  • Enjoy better run blocking than last season
  • Laufasa is unstoppable in short yardage situations
Cons
  • Still prone to the occasional 20-yard loss followed by a fumble
  • Run blocking has improved but remains sub-par

Wide Receivers

*(X) Isiah Myers: 6' 0", 185 lbs., Jr.

*(Z) Gabe Marks: 6' 0", 176 lbs., So.

Isiah Myers had the best game of his career against Cal last year. Of his 418 total yards in 2012, he caught 108 of them against the Bears.

Gabe Marks was team's second-leading receiver in 2012 with 560 yards and 2 TDs. On a team where post-season accolades were rare, he's probably especially proud that he earned a spot on Jewish Sports Review's All-America team. He will be the team's primary target on Saturday and has almost twice as many receptions as the team's next-leading receiver.

The team spreads the ball out to many other receivers, including Kristoff Williams and Dom Williams, who are the team's 2nd and 3rd-leading receivers, respectively. Dom is the team's primary deep threat and has three touchdown receptions of 30+ yards. We cannot allow him to sneak behind the safeties.

Pros

  • Great depth and versatility
  • Dom Williams is dangerous in open space
  • Marks is extremely reliable

Cons

  • Receivers are good, but not great: no single receiver commands double coverage on every play

Inside Receivers

(Y) River Cracraft: 6' 0", 198 lbs., True Fr.

*(H) Brett Bartolone: 5' 10", 187 lbs., So.

Ah, the dreaded inside receivers. Brett Bartolone's name may sound familiar, as he caught a career-high 2 touchdowns against the Bears last season. He earned an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention and led the team with 53 receptions last season, but he has a disappointing 6 catches this season. He has struggled to catch the ball on several occasions.

True freshman River Cracraft has helped replace much of Bartolone's production. Cracraft has 14 receptions for 163 yards, but neither inside receiver has a touchdown this year. Let's keep it that way on Saturday.

Pros

  • Bartolone was a productive, reliable receiver last year
  • Cracraft is off to a great start

Cons

  • Bartolone has substantially underperformed

Offensive Line

(LT) *Gunnar Eklund: 6' 7", 300 lbs., So.

(LG) Joe Dahl: 6' 4", 290 lbs., So.

(C) *Elliot Bosch: 6' 4", 280 lbs., Sr.

(RG) *John Fullington: 6' 5", 301 lbs., Sr.

(RT) Rico Forbes: 6' 6", 300 lbs., Sr.

The offensive line will look a little odd when we see them on Saturday. They use unusually large splits between them (about 3 feet between any two linemen). This helps stretch the defensive line and makes defensive ends cover more ground before they get to the quarterback. This also limits the effectiveness of stunts. In practice, the line uses a mix of man and zone blocking.

The line returns three starters from a unit that allowed 4.75 sacks per game (worst in the nation) and only 1.38 yards per rushing attempt (last in the nation).

Both Eklund and Bosch earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mentions last season, although Fullington earned that honor while playing left guard. Bosch earned the team's Mike Utley Award for Offensive Lineman of the Year. Although Eklund missed the final three games of 2012 with an arm injury, he started at left tackle last year.

This is Joe Dahl's first year of playing after he sat out a year following his transfer from Montana. Forbes is also a first-year player after he redshirted in 2011 and missed 2012 with a leg injury.

Despite some fresh, new faces, the line is performing better than they did last season. Halliday is no longer running for his life on every play and the running backs have actually managed to find some holes through which they can run.

Pros

  • Pass protection and run blocking have improved
  • Wide splits limit the defense's ability to get to the QB (that was not an obstacle last season, apparently)

Cons

  • Pass protection and run blocking are still bad

Statistics

And now is the part when I use some statistics to make you feel much better about playing Washington State. Despite the Pirate Captain and the deceptive offense, the team has not been great so far this year.

Individual Statistics (2013)

Connor Halliday

  • 1472 yards, 6.6 yards per attempt, 66.4% completions, 10 TDs, 9 interception, 128.55 efficiency rating
These numbers aren't great. The yards per attempt is artificially low due to the abundance of short passes in the Mike Leach offense. As we have seen, he has a tendency to turn it over against non-awful defenses. Does this means he'll turn it over on Saturday? I don't know.

Austin Apodaca
  • 165 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, 50.0% completions, 2 TDs, 1 interception, 101.27 per
Those numbers are not good. Not good at all.

Rushing
  • Teondray Caldwell: 123 yards, 5.59 yards per carry, 0 TDs (4.4 carries per game)
  • Marcus Mason: 112 yards, 4.15 yards per carry, 0 TDs (5.4 carries per game)
  • Jeremiah Laufasa: 88 yards, 5.18 yards per carry, 4 TDs (3.4 carries per game)
Now this is a surprise. All these running backs have solid yards-per-carry numbers. As I mentioned, Laufasa is their red zone ball carrier. He has an impressive 4 touchdowns on 5 red zone carries. By contrast, the others combined for only 3 red zone carries. While these yards-per-carry numbers may be frightening, keep in mind that these guys combine for only about 14 carries per game.

Receiving
  • Gabe Marks: 37 receptions, 423 yards, 4 TDs (7.4 ypg)
  • Dom Williams: 13 receptions, 268 yards, 3 TDs (2.6 rpg)
As I mentioned earlier, Marks is the team's most reliable receiver and Williams is the team's best receiver in open space. Fortunately, Dom only receives the ball 2.6 times per game. Other than Marks and Kristoff Williams, no one averages more than three receptions per game.

Team Statistics (2013)

Scoring

  • 28.2 points per game (72nd)

Keep in mind the Cougars have played three bad defenses, an excellent defense, and USC's defense (which is good, except for the times when it is bad. THANKS CLANCY).

Passing

  • 327.4 passing yards per game (14th)
  • 6.3 yards per passing attempt (95th)
  • 124.75 passer efficiency rating (83rd)

Again, this yards per passing attempt is relatively deflated due to the number of short passes in the offense. That pass efficiency rating should make you feel a little better, however.

Rushing

  • 60.6 rushing yards per game (120th)
  • 3.37 yards per carry (105th)
Well, it's better than the 1.7 yards per carry they averaged last season...

Conversions
  • 38.57% third down conversions (77th)
  • 70% fourth down conversions (18th) (7/10)
  • 57.89% red zone touchdown conversions (86th)
These numbers are all pretty bad, except for the fourth down conversions. They are 7 for 10 on the season.

Ball Management
  • 13 turnovers (118th)
  • 26:46.6 average time of possession (111th)
  • 23.02 seconds per play (SLOW) (Cal avg. 19.12)

It would be a shame if that terrible time of possession leads to some cramps on their defense on Saturday.


Negative Yardage

  • 1.80 sacks allowed per game (70th)
  • 5.60 tackles for loss allowed per game (66th)
  • 45.2 penalty yards per game (52nd)

These are not great, but they are much improved over last season.

Conclusions

What have we learned? The Cougars' offense will stretch the field both vertically and horizontally in an attempt to get their receivers out in space. Cal's defense needs to be disciplined and communicate well to avoid the kinds of traps set by Mike Leach's offense. If linebackers and defensive backs are running into each other, we're going to be entering a world of pain. Fortunately, Connor Halliday is not usually a great quarterback. In fact, he's often terrible. Except, of course, when he's on fire. Let's hope the hot Saturday forecast doesn't make him combust.

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