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Washington State Offensive Preview

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There’s a lot to preview here.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Buckle up, this is going to be a long article. It’s nearly impossible to pick offensive highlights for Washington State because they have so many.


Cal will be facing off against one of the original innovators of the Air Raid offense in Mike Leach. If you’re unaware, the Air Raid offense is an offensive system that relies on a lot of short passing and stretching a defense both vertically and horizontally to create space for their receivers. CougCenter has an entire series of articles deep-diving into the Air Raid system if you’d like a really in-depth look at the system. Typically, the Air Raid will use 4 receivers, the X- and Z-receivers on the outside (to the left and right side of the offense, respectively), and the H- and Y-receivers on the inside (also to the left and right of the offense). The running back can also run routes out of the backfield, frequently to the flat, while other receivers run deep routes, hence stretching the field both horizontally and vertically. This has the effect of creating space for the receivers and wider passing windows for the quarterback. One of the original tenets of the Air Raid was that a receiver wouldn’t need to win individual matchups against a defensive back in order to get open. If you see a receiver wide open, it doesn’t necessarily mean a defensive back made a mistake, because if the system is working, then individual defenders are put into no-win situations: choosing to guard one guy leaves the other one open.

The Air Raid offense will spread the ball around. Consequently, Washington State has 8 different receivers (8 games into the season) with at least 250 yards receiving. As a sad comparison, Cal has exactly one such receiver: Nikko Remigio with 251 yards is Cal’s leading receiver. Washington State is led by redshirt senior quarterback Anthony Gordon, who is starting his first year after sitting behind current NFL QBs Luke Falk (R.I.P. Jets) and meme-sensation Gardner Minshew.

Like Cal, Washington State is also 4-4 overall and 1-3 in conference. The loser of this game will sit alone at the bottom of the Pac-12 North. Thanks for nothing, Oregon State.

Offensive Line

We are going to start with the offensive line, because pass protection is integral to the success of a passing offense. If you are a defense, you simply cannot give Anthony Gordon all day to throw the ball. When I make highlight clips, I often like to show the entire play starting from the snap. This actually became a problem when I was making the clips for this article, as Gordon often sits in the pocket 4-5 seconds before he makes a decision, and this was eating up half of the clips as I was bumping into file size limits. It should be obvious, but against an offensive system designed to overload a defense and stretch the field both horizontally and vertically, someone will eventually get open.

Great protection by the offensive line for QB Anthony Gordon.
Great protection by the offensive line for QB Anthony Gordon.

However you want to measure offensive line success, Washington State is one of the best pass-blocking teams in the country, ranking in the top 10 of the FBS in sack rate, standard downs sack rate, and passing downs sack rate. Washington State is tied for 7th in the country in sacks allowed, with only 8 sacks in 8 games this season. Simply put, teams have not been able to get to Gordon.

Quarterback

There’s a lot to like about Anthony Gordon as a quarterback. I like the touch he can put on the ball. In the following clip, he places the ball just out of the reach of defenders, like UCLA #20 (safety Elisha Guidry) as he drops back into coverage, or as he fits the ball into a shrinking window.

QB Anthony Gordon frequently targets WR Brandon Arconado.
QB Anthony Gordon frequently targets WR Brandon Arconado.

Here’s another nice pass Gordon fits right over the outstretched hands of the corner Delrick Abrams Jr:

QB Anthony Gordon great touch on pass to WR Easop Winston Jr.
QB Anthony Gordon great touch on pass to WR Easop Winston Jr.

Of course, if you’re going to stretch the field vertically, you need to be able to hit the deep ball:

Great deep ball from QB Anthony Gordon as WR Dezmon Patmon uses his speed to blow past the corner and the safety.
Great deep ball from QB Anthony Gordon as WR Dezmon Patmon uses his speed to blow past the corner and the safety.

And again, Gordon hits his receivers right in stride:

QB Anthony Gordon makes a nice throw to WR Easop Winston after he burns Darnay Holmes.
QB Anthony Gordon makes a nice throw to WR Easop Winston after he burns Darnay Holmes.

This is just great timing on the throw to Easop Winston Jr, but I’ll get into their chemistry a bit later. Anthony Gordon obviously dominates almost all the passing statistics in the FBS (he’s #1 in the FBS in passing yards, yards per game, and passing TDs), but he also has the second highest passer efficiency rating in the Pac-12 (behind only the ridiculously efficent Tyler Huntley), the #12 rating in the FBS.

Now take a look at these clips again, but pay attention the protection Gordon has. Sometimes Gordon has such a clean pocket, even in the red zone, that he will plant his feet and literally stand there like a statue. If Cal is going to have any success on defense, it’s going to start by not letting Gordon get so comfortable in the pocket that he can break out his reclining chair and start flipping the channels on TV.

Running back

Alright, I’m just going to start with my hot take: RB Max Borghi is the next Christian McCaffrey. He’s immensely less hateable too, since he doesn’t play for that team. He leads the Pac-12 with 7.3 rushing yards per attempt, and he has an additional 9.0 yards per catch while also having the 2nd most receptions on the team. Seems like “give Borghi the ball” is a pretty solid strategy.

I hate to use clips from last year’s game against Cal, but no two clips exemplify Max Borghi better than these two back-to-back plays where Borghi scores one of the only two touchdowns Wazzu had that game.

RB Max Borghi catches a pass in the flat, but he’s a lot stronger than he looks.
RB Max Borghi catches a pass in the flat, but he’s a lot stronger than he looks.

Borghi makes a nice catch out of the backfield; he’s elusive, and he’s tough to bring down. He’s also a lot stronger than his size might suggest:

RB Max Borghi pushes the pile for a touchdown against Cal.
RB Max Borghi pushes the pile for a touchdown against Cal.

Borghi is just a violent runner:

RB Max Borghi stiff arms LB Bryson Young into the dirt.
RB Max Borghi stiff arms LB Bryson Young into the dirt.

He’s a powerful runner, he can make nice cuts, and he’s got speed. Pay no attention to the score here; this was Gordon’s 9th touchdown pass of the game:

RB Max Borghi makes a great cut and shows off his speed in this touchdown run against UCLA.
RB Max Borghi makes a great cut and shows off his speed in this touchdown run against UCLA.

Here’s one of the rare plays where Max Borghi is actually treated like a running back. Again, all of his talents are on display here:

RB Max Borghi can take handoffs too. Here he shows off his elusiveness in the open field.
RB Max Borghi can take handoffs too. Here he shows off his elusiveness in the open field.

Borghi is just a (true) sophomore, so hopefully he only has one more year of terrorizing Pac-12 defenses. If Washington State has one player that can score from anywhere on the field, it’s Borghi. I don’t even need to write much here, since the clips pretty much speak for themselves— and I had a difficult time narrowing down which Borghi highlights I wanted to use.

The silver lining here is that there’s not much depth behind Borghi. Their second leading rusher, RB Deon McIntosh, has a grand total of 14 carries this season. It’s pretty much Borghi or bust, which means that it’s possible to wear Borghi down over the course of a game. In my completely amateur opinion, Borghi looked more explosive last year when RB James Williams was handling roughly two-thirds of the snaps. It gets tiring running all over defenses, you know.

Wide receiver

If there’s a single section of this article that could go on forever, it’s this one. You know how daunting it is trying to find highlights of a team that use 8 different receivers, all of whom are frequently wide-the-hell-open?

I knew where I wanted to start, though. Any look at the Wazzu wide receivers needs to start with WR Easop Winston Jr.

Unfortunately, I have to remind you here that it was Easop Winston that caught the game-winning touchdown against Cal last year.

WR Easop Winston beats Cal CB Josh Drayden twice. Winston makes a nice adjustment to the ball on the first play  and flat-out beats him in man-coverage on the second for the game-winning touchdown.
WR Easop Winston beats Cal CB Josh Drayden twice. Winston makes a nice adjustment to the ball on the first play and flat-out beats him in man-coverage on the second for the game-winning touchdown.

Okay, so why start with Winston? While you might expect the inside or Y-receiver to be the most frequently targeted receiver in a quick passing offense like the Air Raid (and indeed, WR-Y Brandon Arconado is the second most frequently targeted receiver), the number one most frequently targeted receiver on the team is WR-Z Easop Winston. Gordon and Winston have great chemistry together, which is not as surprising when you learn that they were former teammates at CCSF before joining Washington State. When a quarterback is able to throw the ball before his receiver has even made his break, it’s very difficult to defend, and that’s a skill that only comes through many repetitions together in order to always be on the same page.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Winston is a pretty darn good receiver. Here he is making a contested catch in tight coverage:

WR Easop Winston makes a nice catch in tight space.
WR Easop Winston makes a nice catch in tight space.

Here’s Winston cutting so quickly that CB Elijah Gates face-plants:

WR Easop Winston jukes CB Elijah Gates out of his shoes.
WR Easop Winston jukes CB Elijah Gates out of his shoes.

The other player at WR-Z is Dezmon Patmon. Patmon is one of those freakish athletes that’s going to get NFL looks regardless of what he does on the field due to his unique combination of size, strength, and speed (and we saw some of that speed in earlier clips), but he’s a bit frustrating to watch because he doesn’t live up to that potential. If Patmon played more physically and used his size to his advantage more often, he’d be nearly impossible to stop as a possession receiver that could make tough contested catches. Instead, this is how he gets separation:

WR Dezmon Patmon shoves off Deommodore Lenoir who gets flagged for PI, but Patmon flagged for illegal touching after stepping out of bounds.
WR Dezmon Patmon shoves off Deommodore Lenoir who gets flagged for PI, but Patmon flagged for illegal touching after stepping out of bounds. A frequent criticism of Patmon is his raw route-running and a lack of explosive burst off the line.

Regardless, he’s still a big target for any quarterback, and he can definitely use his height and high-point a football. Speaking of big targets, WR-X Davontavean Martin (or “Tay” Martin) was a red zone specialist last year for Wazzu, and tied (with Winston) for the most receiving touchdowns. Tay Martin also knows how to use his body to make contested catches, but I also like that he’s surprisingly shifty for a big guy. He hasn’t been used much this year, but here’s once such nice run after the catch.

WR Tay Martin has a very nice run after the catch.
WR Tay Martin has a very nice run after the catch.

The other WR-X is redshirt freshman Rodrick Fisher. We haven’t seen too much of him this season (I’ve mainly seen him get open on short routes and catch passes while wide open), but he did have one good catch and run against—who else—UCLA:

WR Rodrick Fisher breaks a tackle and stiff-arms S Elisha Guidry into the ground as he runs the ball another 52 yards after the catch.
WR Rodrick Fisher breaks a tackle and stiff-arms S Elisha Guidry into the ground as he runs the ball another 52 yards after the catch.

In the WR-Y position is the oft-targeted WR Brandon Arconado. In Washington State’s spring game this year, it was noted that he was the receiver that had improved the most since last year. He has the second most receiving yards behind Winston, but he doesn’t have all too many highlight-reel catches, since most of his catches are when he manages to get himself wide open:

WR Brandon Arconado gets behind S Mikial Onu on a busted coverage for the easy touchdown catch.
WR Brandon Arconado gets behind S Mikial Onu on a busted coverage for the easy touchdown catch.

In the WR-H position are a pair of small but speedy receivers in Renard Bell and Travell Harris. Wazzu wants to get these guys the ball in space and have them make something happen. Here Bell uses his speed to beat safety Verone McKinley to the edge for a touchdown:

Screen pass to WR Renard Bell, touchdown set up by a nice block from WR Tay Martin.
Screen pass to WR Renard Bell, touchdown set up by a nice block from WR Tay Martin.

Travell Harris is probably the only player nearly as explosive as Borghi. Here’s Harris doing his best Tecmo Bo Jackson impression:

WR Travell Harris with a ridiculous run after the catch for a touchdown.
WR Travell Harris with a ridiculous run after the catch for a touchdown.

Washington State still has 4 more players that have caught passes this season (and if Kassidy Woods suddenly has a monster game, I swear...), but I think you get the point. One of the things that makes Washington State’s Air Raid difficult to defend is that it’s not just about what the WR-X is doing here or the WR-Y is doing there. Each one of these receivers has something that they bring to the table, something they do better than the others, and it’s important for the defense to know what that particular thing is when they’re deciding how to cover them.

Special teams

Travell Harris led the Pac-12 last year in yards per kickoff return with 27.6 yards/return. Here’s one example why:

WR Travell Harris with the 100 yard kick return.
WR Travell Harris with the 100 yard kick return.

Sophomore Blake Mazza is the kicker, and he’s one of the most reliable kickers in the Pac-12: he’s 4th in the FBS in points (41/41 XPM/XPA, 13/13 FGM/FGA) and hasn’t missed a kick yet. Those aren’t gimmes either, as it includes a 50 yard FG against NMSU and a 51 yard FG against Utah. That’s important, given Cal’s bend but not break defense: if Washington State can get on Cal’s side of the field, they can score points.

Washington State doesn’t punt much (their 22 punts rank last in the Pac-12), but punter Oscar Draguicevich has kicked 11 of those 22 punts inside the 20 (with 0 touchbacks), and averages 44.0 yards per punt (the Pac-12 leader, ASU’s Michael Turk, averages 46.8).

Washington State doesn’t go for it that often on 4th down— they often don’t need to— but they are 2nd in the Pac-12 in 4th down conversion percentage (8/11 = 72.7%).

Summary

As usual, Cal will have their hands full with a dangerous Washington State offense. However, coach Justin Wilcox and Cal have had Washington State’s number on defense in their previous matchups, starting with a surprise dismantling of the then-undefeated #8 ranked Cougars 37-3 in 2017 and a last minute defeat 19-13 up in Pullman in 2018 (we all remember the unfortunate 4th quarter interception McIlwain threw in the end zone).

Cal primarily did this by bringing creative and confusing pressures on the Air Raid QBs, which allowed Cal to get pressure without rushing too many players, which also allowed them to drop more players into coverage. Typically, teams do one or the other: drop more receivers into coverage and you give Wazzu all day to throw and eventually find an open receiver, or you bring pressure and leave receivers open and get carved up by the quick passing game instead. It’s the teams that can do both that shut down the Air Raid offense. While the Utahs of the world can do this by rushing a couple monster defensive linemen and dropping the rest of their players into coverage, Cal had to get creative schematically to do this. In the words of a different Jets quarterback, they were “seeing ghosts.” Cal also made a point of playing keep-away with Washington State, and limited them to only 10 offensive possessions last year. After all, it’s hard to score if you don’t have the ball.

The Cal defense will need to fluster and frustrate Anthony Gordon in order to goad him into making mistakes (the way Luke Falk did when he threw 5 interceptions against Cal) , and all of the defensive backs will need to play sharp, because it only takes one receiver getting open to make a big play. Overall though, this is a very good matchup for Cal, as it’s strength versus strength.

Go Bears.