In preparation for this film study, Jeff Nusser of CougCenter joined me on the Quack 12 Podcast to chat about the Washington State roster and what we saw against Oregon State. You can find that podcast episode HERE.
With the hiring of new HC Rolovich, this offseason Wazzu changed from one iconic offense, the Air Raid, to another, the Run & Shoot. I was eager to see how that would play out with shortened preparation time, and I think we got a lot of answers last Saturday. While there are a number of key structural differences between the Cougs’ offense in 2020 compared to the last eight years — most significantly the route tree, the running back deployment, and the blocking scheme — overall I found more similarities than I was expecting. This is what Jeff referred to as “a very stripped-down version of the Run & Shoot.”
Compared to Mouse Davis’ version years ago at Portland St, a number of core concepts have been changed: there’s no real rollout of the QB (the “run” part of the name), there are no pre-snap WR motions, option routes are fairly limited, it focuses mostly on short quick passes for efficiency and ball control, and they’re operating out of the pistol about 40% of the time.
The Cougs hit the ground running with their quarterback selection, #4 QB de Laura, a true freshman from Honolulu who came up in a fairly similar offense and was literally playing across the street from Rolovich when he was coaching at Hawai’i.
The most remarkable thing about de Laura, and biggest change from previous Wazzu QBs, is how comfortable he is running with the ball - read-option runs are a big part of this offense and he kept it three times for an average of 7.3 YPC … although I think he should have handed off on one of those, and should have kept it on two other occasions, with those three all being unsuccessful rushes. He’s also very comfortable breaking the pocket on designed passing plays, and scrambled four times for 7.8 YPC plus one crucial 4th down pass completion … although he also took a sack and there were five more times I think he took off too early which resulted in an unsuccessful passing down.
I tallied 39 called passing plays on Saturday, 12 of which resulted in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. That’s a 31% broken play rate, which is very high - championship-caliber teams are usually in the low teens. Five of those 12 broken plays were successful, and whether they worked or not came down almost entirely to de Laura. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ½ or ¼ speed)
- :00 - A fairly quick and not uncommon pocket collapse, and the green dog flushes the QB. His pump-fake on the move gets a very effective pass rusher to jump, buying him some more time to try a throw, but it goes nowhere.
- :12 - The QB is flushed again on poor pass protect but sidesteps the rusher, and throws a bit high while on the move, more than his WR can haul in.
- :29 - Unlike in previous years, the RB in this scheme stays in the pocket as part of the protection virtually every passing play. This is an example of about half of such attempts where he can’t quite pick it up, and as a result the QB has to run for it, throwing a nice stiffarm for extra yardage, but being somewhat careless with the ball.
- :40 - This is arguably the game-winning play, but it’s also the only completion the QB made while scrambling. Not a terrible throw, but a hell of an adjustment by the veteran receiver.
Overall Wazzu was successful, given the down & distance, on 54% of its called passing plays, with four passes going for over 20 yards. Of the 27 that weren’t broken passing plays, they were successful on 16, which is 59%. Those aren’t terrific efficiency stats, though the explosive passing is by far the most dangerous aspect of this offense.
De Laura wasn’t particularly accurate, with a 54.5% completion rate and 126.3 passer rating - that was second to last in the Pac-12 last Saturday and would have been 14th out of 16 in the league last year. He can push the ball downfield, though most of his passes are short efficiency throws to the flat, or slants and drags across the middle. His throwing motion is reasonably compact within 15 yards, but on deep shots he has a really big windup where he whips his whole body and head, which causes him to take his eyes off the target … in one instance this resulted in an interception.
This offense operated entirely out of 10-personnel (one RB, no TE), with WRs in 3x1 or 2x2 every snap. I think those receivers are the best part of the offense: they returned a core of four veterans — #9 WR Bell, #6 WR Calvin, #1 WR Harris, and #8 WR C. Jackson — who between them had over 4,000 career passing yards going into the season. Those four caught every pass last Saturday and played virtually every snap, to the point where neither Jeff nor I knows if they have any playable backups at all. I thought their talent was the most vital aspect of Wazzu’s production, and when given a clean pocket, whether they were able to make a play on the ball was the biggest determinant of passing success:
- :00 - OSU’s only rushing three and so de Laura has time to wind up on this deep shot. Calvin burns the DB badly but the ball’s underthrown and he can’t time his leap for it to prevent the break-up.
- :24 - This is a Sunday catch by Calvin.
- :45 - I don’t know what OSU’s high safety thinks he’s doing, but abandoning his post means this is a one-on-one between Harris and the DB. De Laura properly reads the field and knows Harris is going to bend it, starting his throwing motion before Harris breaks even and dropping it right onto his back shoulder.
- 1:04 - This time the blitz is picked up by the back, and the QB flings it over the backer. But he’s high and well behind Bell’s heroic effort to make a play.
One of the bigger surprises was that #3 RB McIntosh effectively replaced Wazzu’s excellent #21 RB Borghi, who sat out the game with what seems to be a back injury (Jeff tells us Borghi is unlikely to play against Oregon this week). He didn’t catch anything out of the backfield, which is a huge change for Wazzu, but he turned out to be a much more effective runner than he had been in previous seasons in Pullman. Jeff told an interesting story on the podcast about McIntosh getting better nutrition and upping his playing weight to be more effective. The issue here is depth - neither of the other two backs showed up in Corvallis, and the only other available back is a walk-on fullback who’s not that quick.
One similarity to previous Air Raid offenses is that they make a deliberate effort to eat clock, despite the popular reputation of high-flying passing offenses of speeding the game up - the reader will note in almost every video in this article, the playclock is under 5 seconds when the ball is snapped. That’s a lot easier with an effective rushing game, which Wazzu demonstrated on Saturday - 13 successful runs vs 9 failed ones, or 59%, with six of them going for 10 yards or more. But much of that came from McIntosh alone, because this o-line wasn’t doing a great job of opening holes for him:
- :00 - The QB should have kept this ball, and this new complex run-blocking scheme just isn’t something that linemen who were recruited to be stationary pass-blockers can effectively execute.
- :15 - Not a great job by the center or left guard, but what an incredible effort by McIntosh to power through multiple defenders for the 1st down.
- :34 - Again, too complex of a blocking scheme for these linemen — the LT misses on his second level block and the RT runs into the back when pulling to hit the initially unblocked edge defender — but McIntosh survives both for a 1st down and more.
- 1:03 - Oregon fans will be familiar with this type of run block, combos at first then one lineman detaching to block at the second level. Oregon’s better at it.
In my opinion, the unit that most contributed to Wazzu beating Oregon St last week was the Cougs’ pass rush by their defensive line, more so than anything they did on offense. It was certainly the best part of Wazzu’s defense, which reflected a scheme change to a 4-2-5 under new DC Dickert from Wyoming that much better suits the personnel they have - slim, one-gapping speed rushers, for the most part.
It’s only been one game, and it’s difficult to tell how much of this is Wazzu’s d-line and how much is OSU’s o-line when that’s the only data we have, but the Coug defense was successful on 22 called passing plays vs 21 failures, 51% and above water in that regard for the first time I’ve charted them since 2017.
I think that’s almost entirely due to the pass rush, because I’m just not impressed with the linebackers or the defensive backs in coverage. There’s an extensive discussion of this on the podcast, with Jeff recounting the complicated and difficult-to-process backstory of their most talented DB on the field. For the purposes of this article I’ll restrict my commentary to saying that #36 DB Hector, who’s playing nickel and needs to be all over the field including in the box and sometimes on the line of scrimmage, is the only member of the secondary who can cover. Wazzu didn’t bring six of their DBs to Corvallis, and the five they played were on the field virtually every snap, so I doubt they have anything in the way of superior backup options.
Here’s a representative sample of their pass defenses:
- :00 - Wazzu is blitzing out of cover-1, which usually didn’t work if the blitz got picked up as it was here because most of these DBs can’t handle man coverage. Indeed, on the top of the screen the X-receiver has completely turned around the cornerback, if only the QB had seen it. But he throws against the one competent DB they have so it’s incomplete.
- :15 - This blitz, however, was much more effective. It’s hard to find a single o-lineman who’s winning his block.
- :33 - There has to be some kind of miscommunication here, because half the defense is in zone and the other half thinks it’s man. #13 LB Woods runs into the CB then is late to cover the underneath throwing lane.
- :42 - Hector, a true freshman walk-on, is correcting Woods, a redshirt senior and four-year starter, on his coverage assignment.
As usual, Wazzu’s rush defense was atrocious. They were successful on only 30% of designed runs, 8 successes vs 19 failures, they allowed five runs of 10 or more yards, and of the 12 times OSU rushed with 5 yards or fewer to go, they gave up a 1st down or touchdown on 11 of them. OSU’s HC Smith figured out much too late in this game that he could run all over the Cougs, then hit play-action slants that sucked up the overeager linebackers out of the throwing lane - a strategy that led to three straight long touchdown drives, and if he’d employed earlier it might have resulted in a different game outcome.
Usually, 4-2-5 teams are more vulnerable to outside runs, because it’s more difficult to set the edge when you’re committed to 4-down linemen on every snap as Wazzu is, and without linebacker flexibility to quickly flow to the play such defenses have to rely on DBs to do so. And sure enough, they were only successful on 37.5% of outside runs. But they didn’t enjoy the typical tradeoff, which is stopping inside runs - at that they only succeeded twice against 11 attempts, or 18%.
Some examples, which I trust speak for themselves: