The air raid is built on the repetition of a relatively few number of basic plays, each with multiple short, high-percentage receiving options. It helps to think of these in the same way that, say, a power rushing team is built around dives, counters, and off-tackle runs: a way of ensuring you get a steady rate of modest gains and keep ahead of the chains.
Indeed, Wazzu’s offense over the years tends to be very efficient, and contrary to its Big-XII roots, isn’t really a high-flying, fast-paced, deep-shot heavy offense. One interesting stat is that in every year since Coach Leach took over in 2012, the Cougars’ adjusted pace in SP+ has declined about ten spots, until in 2018 they hit the bottom at #130 - the slowest team in the nation. This is simply a ball control offense by other means.
Here are some examples of the basic short options:
- :00 - The quick slant. This doesn’t take a rocket arm, but it does require precision timing. Here, #18 QB Gordon fits the ball in to #8 WR Winston just as the window opens, with the DB behind the pass.
- :11 - The speed out. Here the defense tries a safety blitz, and there’s a window between the linebacker dropping to cover and the rest of the secondary collapsing down to hit the flat. Some spectacularly bad tackling lets #5 WR Harris pick up a lot of extra yardage.
- :35 - The crosser. The linebackers gain a lot of depth here, worried that one of these routes will break in -- #9 WR Bell does, in fact -- and leave the shallow cross wide open. This is a single crosser but Wazzu also likes to run a mesh in which two opposite crossers intersect midfield.
- :43 - The checkdown. The defense rushes four, has four against two receivers releasing deep on the boundary, two on the field side receiver going deep, and a linebacker on the midfield crosser … leaving nobody to follow #21 RB Borghi immediately heading to the sideline, who gets an easy catch and vaults a DB for more yards.
The way to deal with these plays is pretty clear: sound assignment football, on every route, on every snap. Defenses also need to be patient and accept that they’re going to give up some completions - their real priority is to quickly make the tackle to minimize the gain, rather than play for break-ups and interceptions.
It’s difficult for most defenses to stay that disciplined, so to get chunk yardage, Wazzu mixes in a few other options that exploit defenders getting lazy in covering the same dozen plays over and over. Some examples:
- :00 - Unlike every other linebacker covering every other offense, this ILB steps back when the QB begins to hand off the ball, leaving this light box practically empty. The rest of the defense has their backs to the line in coverage. Borghi shows his strength and evasion breaking four tackles on the way to the endzone.
- :24 - Included so the reader doesn’t get the wrong idea - Wazzu’s rush efficiency is terrible -- because their offensive line has little in the way of run-blocking ability -- even though their rush explosion rate is fairly high. When they attempt to run against defenses that are ready for it, those plays typically end like this.
- :33 - Wazzu throws screens about 13% of the time, usually when they’re reading the defense with a blitz tendency. Here the blitz means one-on-one matchups, and Wazzu only needs to win two blocks and run off the field corner for a nice gain.
- :56 - This is what happens when a DB gets tired of giving up short slants and tries to make a break inside - as soon as the hips turn, #19 WR Arconado breaks this sluggo big. The wide angle shows why there’s no help: they’ve only got a linebacker at depth playing “safety” on this side of the field and he has to deal with the back leaking out.
I certainly have tape of defenses being rewarded for proper play with short tackles and easy breakups of greedy passes (although not as much as I’d like; Wazzu’s previous two opponents play awfully sloppy). But reader, you already know what such plays look like, they’re the same as in any other offense.
What I can tell you from watching film and running the numbers is that Wazzu simply doesn’t have the talent to win explosive plays without the defense abandoning assignment football or flagrantly missing tackles, that is, to win tightly contested passes or sit in the pocket for an extended time waiting for long-developing plays to open up. There’s a reason why teams with disciplined defenses like Stanford and Utah traditionally deal with Wazzu handily, and the Apple Cup has been a foregone conclusion for years.
Even though Wazzu brought back virtually all of its great skill talent (perfect fits for this offense) and most of its o-line from last year, the three guys they’re missing have been substantial losses. First, Borghi has stepped up from the #2 to the #1 back after the departure of Boobie Williams, but the new backup #16 RB McIntosh hasn’t been able to fill Borghi’s shoes nearly as well. Second, the loss of first-round draft pick Andre Dillard has meant the previous left guard, #63 LT Ryan, has moved over to left tackle and longtime backup #74 LG Valencia has taken his spot, and from film study I don’t believe either are ideal for their new positions. Those two factors have significantly curtailed checkdowns and running back screens compared to last year, as Borghi is kept in for a lot more reps and frequently as a blocker in pass-protection.
Lastly, Gordon is a return to earth from the transcendent play of Gardner Minshew. While he’s a capable QB for this system, as Luke Falk and Connor Halliday were, he simply doesn’t have Minshew’s preternatural sense for pressure, improvisational skills, or pinpoint accuracy.
In my 2018 analysis of Wazzu, I advised Oregon’s defensive coaches not to blitz under any circumstances, because the line was strangely better at picking up blitzes than dealing with four or fewer rushers, and because Minshew would simply dance out of the pressure and find easier passing targets with fewer men in coverage (they didn’t listen). This year neither obtain, and I think a moderate number of blitzes would be effective. Some examples of the salutary effects of QB pressure:
- :00 - There are too many twists for the line to deal with in this blitz, and Gordon is forced into a risky pass to avoid taking a safety. The second angle shows the wide splits the line plays with (better for creating quick passing lanes), which means they have a much harder time switching off blocks.
- :15 - The end’s stunt gets in behind #69 C Mauigoa’s turned back, panicking Gordon into this easily broken-up throw. He doesn’t see #88 WR Fisher wide open on the far flat, but even if he did I doubt he has the time to turn and set his feet, as he’d need to so as to make that throw given his arm strength.
- :29 - Ryan is way too stiff to handle this edge blitzer and earns a holding flag, meanwhile this result is typical of Gordon’s attempts to tuck the ball and run.
- :37 - I saw plays like this a distressing number of times. The o-line guesses incorrectly which of the backers on the line is going to rush and which will back out, and Borghi isn’t on pass-pro so the ball has to be out instantly to him on the checkdown. Instead Gordon panics, runs backwards, and tries … whatever this is.
Wazzu is #78 in defensive SP+, which I’m sure is mostly the effect how small the bodies are in their defensive front. The upside is a fast, deceptive defensive line that uses extensive stemming to confuse o-lines and attack at peculiar angles, as well as get around less flexible o-linemen.
This works out better in pass defense, where if the o-line isn’t ready for it with good blitz communication, the onslaught can panic the QB. That’s necessary, because the back end isn’t really getting it done. Some representative examples:
- :00 - #50 DE Block gets through the WR and forces the RT back, while #98 DT Hobbs spins around the RG. Sacks like these come from pure aggression rather than size and power.
- :18 - Safety blitzes like this one are fairly common, but Wazzu usually telegraphs them this obviously. Here the LT just doesn’t see it and the QB pays the price.
- :34 - Here the line is tilting the protection which allows the QB an open look of the wide side of the field, which Wazzu has a tough time defending in man. Both returning starters are in on this play: #4 CB Strong overruns his assignment then whiffs on the tackle, and it’s all #25 S Thomas can do to slow the receiver down.
- :43 - The QB keeps his cool this time and steps up, finding the receiver has broken the nickel #32 RB Nunn’s ankles and split him and Thomas to get wide open.
The Cougs’ rush defense, on the other hand ... at only 27% successfully defended rushes given the down and distance I observed, it is, remarkably, even softer than the Huskies’. Making matters far worse, they don’t just give up efficiency runs, those runs break big, for a ranking of #113 in rushing explosive rate. In the games I studied, prior to garbage time, they were giving up close to 8 yards per carry on designed runs.
It exceeds my power of explanation to describe how poor this rush defense is. Fortunately we have video:
- :00 - The lane to run through here is enormous, and it takes four tacklers to bring the back down.
- :08 - Quite a bit of leaping about here, and they even change the surface to a bear front at the last second, but none of that matters as the linemen are easily turned and the back just runs over the linebacker even without much of a second-level block.
- :23 - I think without that last stem they might have had a chance at this, but as it is they leave the backers out of position and they have to run some long loops to even get a hand on the back.
- :37 - The good news is that the very late shift lets the linemen shoot the gaps. The bad news is that the back now has no opposition for eight yards.