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Know The Enemy: Previewing the Washington State Offense

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We face the Air Raid this time, and now you're going to learn about it

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This week on the Jared Goff hype train, the Washington State Cougars come into Memorial Stadium. The Cougars are coming off a bye week, sitting at 2-1 after beating Wyoming at home 31-14. The ignominious one loss for Wazzu comes from a loss to FCS mainstay Portland State. The Vikings played Wazzu well, only putting five in the box to incentivize the Cougar run game. LiffeyBear had an excellent post about this from Wednesday, you can read about it here.

Running isn't something that Mike Leach likes to do though. While Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow, and Keith Harrington are solid running backs who do their job, the running game isn't something that should be feared. Harrington has been impressive as a redshirt freshman so far, but the bigger fear comes in the passing game. it is called the Air Raid for a reason. Washington State brings in a team that has rushed 66 times this season (Cal has 167 in 4 games), the lowest in the FCS. The next lowest has 80 attempts (also in three games). Leach has always liked to swing his sword in the passing game, and Luke Falk is his first mate in this pirate offense. With a collection of receivers who often ask why the rum is always gone (Leach blames Sark), Falk will come into Memorial with cannons ablazing.

Personnel:

Luke Falk is the big worry for this game. The heir apparent to Connor Halliday, Falk has thrown for over 300 yards in each of the first three games. While this is almost expected in the Wazzu offense, Falk still has the ability to do these things, which is impressive no matter where you stand on spread offenses. Here are the key stats for Falk:

  • 323.3 yards per game with a 73% completion percentage
  • 8 touchdowns to 1 interception
  • 7.04 yards per attempt and a 148.2 QB Rating

That's pretty darn impressive. The issue that Falk faces is how late he throws the ball. As a quarterback, you usually throw the ball right before the cut on timing routes, but Falk will wait until the receiver has come out of his break. River Cracraft has been a victim of this, making some excellent catches despite nearly being destroyed going across the middle. Also, I have seen plays where Falk could have made an easy dump off pass on a 3rd and 3-6, but decided to try for the deep throw. On one such occasion, he got destroyed by a rushing lineman, which is not good for a pirate king. Falk still completes over 70% of his passes though, so he's going to be force to keep grounded.

His tools of destruction in the receiving game are threefold in Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, and Dom Williams. These three all average at least 70 yards receiving per game. Cracraft is the one that could be the most dangerous, running from the inside spot. When Wazzu runs the mesh concept, which will be discussed often, Cracraft will be the one to dissect the defense. Cracraft and Williams both had over 100 yards in last year's matchup as well. Marks takes over the spot that Vince Mayle vacated. Marks is their leading receiver at this juncture and will be targeted often in the Air Raid. Marks was injured all of last year, but the junior from Venice, California will be an impact as a speed threat on the outside.

The stable of running backs in Morrow, Wicks and Harrington don't inspire too much fear. Harrington had a nice 36 yard touchdown against Wyoming, but otherwise the Cougars won't run in a conventional manner.

Scheme:

The Air Raid has three big passing concepts which should hypothetically work on any defense. They are the most ubiquitous part of the Wazzu offense. The only one they don't work on is the one that pressures the passer and takes him off of his reads. First, we start with Larry and Randy. Who are Randy and Larry? They make up a pseudo replacement for the running game in the Air Raid.

Randy and Larry merely refer to the WR screen, and the direction that they go in. Larry is left and Randy is right. They're essentially your basic jailbreak screen. Cal has run these screens, most pertinently this season to Maurice Harris to cap off the first half of the San Diego State game. Wazzu has started to move away from this however, as their screen game has become a little more varied. The running back fulfills the role of the jailbreak receiver in this play, and he has an extra blocker with the two receivers ahead of him. It didn't work on this specific example, but it did later in this drive for a big first down that set up Harrington's long TD run.

One noticeable change in the Wazzu offense is a move towards a two back set in the shotgun. Last year in their game against Cal, they ran more singleback, presumably because the Cal defense was allergic to covering receivers, and more receivers equaled more yards. This year, they want to get Harrington on the field. They'll also use motion, as seen in this version of the Air Raid mainstay, Four Verticals.

Four verticals is exactly what it sounds like. Four deep routes. The college version of Rex Grossman's "F--- it, I'm going deep." Four verticals works on every coverage, because the receiver has the option to break off the route. That's the fun part for receivers in the Air Raid, they have a choice. Against man coverages or quarters, the outside receivers can break off the route and the quarterback can throw to the back shoulder on a comeback. Against a cover 2 set, there's gap about 10-15 yards deep on the outside between the corner and the safety where the QB can fit the ball. And against plays with a single deep safety, there are two deep routes that he needs to cover. Whichever one he chooses will always be wrong, as long as you have a smart quarterback.

In this variant, the running back stays in for pass protection, and the motion guy takes his responsibility as the safety valve. Falk sees the man coverage on the outside, channels his inner Sexy Rexy, and chucks it deep for a touchdown. Truly beautiful, somewhat like the Jared Goff throw to Chris Harper against Colorado last year.

The last big concept is the Mesh. This is over-under crossing route that Cal ran for touchdown last week, where Kenny Lawler and Trevor Davis hi-fived in the middle of the field during the play. It can look like this, if run from the base four receiver set.

In this, you'll see that the receiver sits in between zones instead of running across the field. This is dependent on the coverage. In man coverage, the receiver will take the defender across the field. Oddly enough, the crossing route isn't the first progression. The inside-out route run by the receiver at the top of the gif is the first look, and usually determines the coverage. If the corner goes with him, the crossing receiver will probably be open, and if not him, the running back on the swing route will get a good 5 or 10 yards. It makes the reads easy, on one side of the field, and usually one guy will be open. It can also be ran out of a trips formation, like so

Conclusions:

Cal's passing defense best be improved to deal with the sheer volume of passes that they will face. Falk has thrown 40+ passes every game this year, topping off with 66 against Rutgers. Falk isn't a running quarterback, which makes life a lot easier for an opportunistic defense. One worry is that Cal hasn't faced a good slot receiver this year quite like River Cracraft. We'll see how Cameron Walker and the linebacking core deals with him on Saturday. I'd say there's a good chance that Cal can hold Luke Falk below his season averages, but there's a lot of different factors at play. That being said, if the defense plays like they did up in Seattle, we'll have a happy time come Saturday night.