Washington State stumbled out of the gate this year with a surprising loss to Portland State. While the Wazzu players obviously didn't play up to their potential in a rain soaked game, not giving Portland State credit for the result would be a great disservice. The Portland State players executed a defensive game plan which might be the template for grounding the Air-Raid. Two weeks later, Wyoming would follow this template in an attempt to upset the Cougars the second time this season. That attempt fell far short, in part because Washington State has been adapting as the season progresses.
What did Portland State do that upset WSU head coach Mike Leach's offense so much that they only scored 3 points on their first two drives despite gaining 165 yards? The only played with 5 men in "The Box" on defense.
The box is a football counting concept which represents the number of defensive players aligned in the area between the offensive tackles and about five yards deep from the line of scrimmage. The area normally encompasses a 10-yard wide by five-yard imaginary box.
Here is what Portland State's defense looked like:
There are only 5 defenders in the Box, while the offense has 8 players between the tackles. There is a 6th man, just outside the strict definition of the box. Even taking this defender into consideration the offense has a number advantage if they run the ball up the middle.
The blocking scheme for this play leaves the back side (circled) Defensive End unblocked since the running back # 25 Jamal Morrow is going to be running away from him. The offensive line has man blocking assignments, where each lineman is responsible for a specific defender (this is true for run plays as well as pass plays).
While slide pass protection and zone blocking have increasingly become the rage, Leach always focused on "man blocking," where the goal was to win the battle versus the guy across from you.
... the only time Leach wanted to run the ball is if the numbers in the box were extremely favorable, the wide line splits helped his linemen in their run blocking because they almost always had angles.
As with every play in the Air Raid, the receivers run pass routes forcing the defensive backs to cover them. #23 Gerard Wicks releases into a pass pattern, and no one covers him... This could set up a potential passing exploit later in the game.
WSU does a good job blocking and there is no one able to stop Morrow until the Safety is able to come up and make a tackle after Morrow had gained 7 yards. If the Safety misses this could have been a very big gain. That was the second play of the game.
Why give Washington State such an advantage in the running game? Well, here was the first play of the game:
Once again there are only five defenders in the box and that 5th one is so wide he may not even be counted by WAZZU quarterback Luke Falk. On this play there is an uncovered receiver... Four defenders are potentially responsible for him, but more likely this is zone coverage.
With a three to two man advantage on the outside at the line of scrimmage, Falk throws the screen to #26 Tyler Baker.
Knowing they have help deep and over the middle, the PSU defensive backs on the outside are able to be very aggressive and attack through the blocking receivers before the ball is even in the air.
Mike Leach's run game fascinates me because he has designed the offense least likely to run the ball. Through 3 games WSU has only run the ball 66 times, the next fewest in in all of FBS is New Mexico State at 80 (also in 3 games). And here Portland State has designed a defense which encourages the Cougars to run the ball by placing only five defenders in the box. Lets take a look at the first quarter statistics for this game:
15 runs to 11 passes. The pass completion percentage was extremely high and the yards per pass were higher than the yards per run but WSU ran the ball more often because of what the defense was dictating. Luke Falk has the final call on whether to run or pass and his keys, based on the defensive alignment, said to run. Portland's defense in the red zone was tremendous and after two drives the Cougars had to settle for two field goal attempts, one of which was blocked.
Washington State's offensive play calling changed throughout the game, partly because the score became much closer and partly because they are a pass first team and started to adapt to the extra pass defenders.
1st Quarter 58% running plays
2nd Quarter 47% running plays
3rd Quarter 15% running plays
4th Quarter 26% running plays
WSU led total yards but lost the game. In the first half the Cougars had the ball for more than 20 of the 30 minutes but only managed two scores for 10 points. After opening up the passing offense, WSU still only managed to score 7 points while the time of possession was reversed.
Given Portland State's success, Wyoming attempted to follow suit.
We see that Wyoming has five or maybe six men in the box (depending on how Falk counts them). Wyoming has every receiver covered by a defender with two deep Safeties. Wyoming is daring the Cougars to run the ball.
Washington State obliges them, running the ball on 2 of the first 3 plays of the first drive and running a wide receiver screen on 3rd down:
After forcing the Cougars to punt, Wyoming scored quickly on this play:
Mike Leach decides he has had enough of this and the Cougars run 6 pass plays in a row with their drive ending after a sack and an incompletion.
Last year Washington State ran the ball about 23% of the time and I think that is where Mike Leach would like to see his run-pass ratio. This year the Cougars have run the ball about 29% of the time. Against Portland State they ran the ball 40% of the time, but when Wyoming employed a similar defense WSU only ran 30% of the time.
Washington State actually played better against Portland State when they stuck to their keys and ran the ball. When they moved to a pass first mind set, they gave the Vikings a chance to get back into the game. Against Wyoming, Luke Falk completed more passes than against Portland and so the emphasis on passing didn't hurt the Cougars.
The chart shows the upward trend in completion percentage throughout the year and the downward trend in total rushing yards for the Cougars in their first three games.
Is daring Washington State to run the ball a winning formula? Only when the extra man in coverage actually forces more incompletions. The question is, will the Golden Bears follow Portland State and Wyoming's examples or will they play a more traditional defense like Rutgers (who allowed nearly 500 yards in passing)?
A Quick Scouting Report
Watching Jared Goff has spoiled me. He makes correct decisions quickly and throws accurately before the defense can get to him (except against UW where he was doing a lot of double clutching and getting hit because of it - I have yet to check if this was due to tight coverage on his receivers or if Goff was uncharacteristically tentative). Luke Falk, however, does not have a quick release. Mike Leach called him "Slow and Deliberate" after the Portland State game and I don't think that has changed. Falk often waits until after his receivers come out of their breaks to throw the ball (resulting in many plays over the middle where River Cracraft gets hammered attempting to make the catch). Hopefully Cal will be able to get pressure on Falk and have a bunch of passes defended because of his tendency to hold on to the ball so long. The reason this tendency has not hurt WSU so far this season is due to outstanding blocking by their offensive line.
The player to watch is redshirt freshman running back Keith Harrington #24. Harrington is not yet a starter but he has big play ability and once Wazzu realizes he is better than their other options at running back, Mike Leach might start to actually WANT to run the ball (yeah, I doubt it too).