Wazzu’s offense is difficult to describe at this point. There are certainly several Run & Shoot concepts in it, though it’s missing many foundational elements like pre-snap motion and constant rollouts, it’s had grafted onto it a number of Pistol Offense staples, and about six games into the season they started incorporating some Air Raid throwbacks. There was also a carousel at quarterback in the first four games, and now almost half the coaching staff, including the head coach who was the architect of the offense, are no longer on the sideline.
I’ve charted every FBS game the Cougars have played, and overall it’s a pretty pass-heavy and not particularly efficient offense - outside of garbage time it’s about a 4:7 run-pass balance and a 48% per-play success rate, given the down & distance. They’ve fallen behind in three of their last four games, but leveraged themselves back into them by hitting some explosive passes, and their starting quarterback is one of the most dangerous in the Pac-12.
Starter #4 QB de Laura has taken every snap for the last five games, but he spent most of the first four on the bench for reasons that I don’t think we’ll ever get a full account, and as a result about a quarter of designed passing plays were with someone else at QB. Excluding those plays doesn’t really change the efficiency number much - de Laura has had 108 successful designed passing plays vs 109 failed ones, or a 49.8% success rate, about a one percentage point bump over the entire sample. However, de Laura is better at hitting longer passes - he’s averaging 7.8 yards per pass attempt, four-tenths of yard better, and about 18% of his designed passing plays go 15+ yards, up about 2.5 percentage points over the entire sample.
Here’s a representative sample of de Laura’s successful passing plays:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 - This rub play to the corner is the only live route in the structure - this is going to be thrown out the back of the endzone if the defense is in disguised zone and the corner drops. But it’s man, the rub works, and Jackson shows some exceptional body control.
- :16 - There’s a botched coverage handoff here, I think the nickel is supposed to be taking the sweep man and the field safety should be taking Harris on the in-breaking option route, a staple of the Run & Shoot, but regardless de Laura can see his leverage is all wrong and instantly makes the throw.
- :30 - Screens are about 10% of their passing plays, this one is pretty well blocked although somewhat a waste of Stribling’s size.
- :46 - Reader, watch de Laura’s helmet for how completely locked in he is on Harris. There’s a backer spying the QB, which is appropriate for how often he breaks the pocket, but he’d be better served reading the de Laura’s eyes, knowing his tendencies, and camping out in Harris’ throwing lane.
There are a few factors contributing to Wazzu’s underwater passing efficiency rate. The offensive line is pretty good at pass protection — most of the starters are holdovers from the Air Raid era, when pass-blocking was pretty much all they were recruited for — but I certainly see plenty of breakdowns and in particular I think their left tackle is a vulnerability. About 19% of dropbacks end in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is a relatively high number.
It also seems clear that de Laura trusts only two of his receivers, #1 WR Harris and #8 WR Ca. Jackson, who are both about 5’10”, while the other receivers, including 6’2” wideouts #6 WR Ollie and #88 WR Stribling, have gotten far fewer targets over the season and that’s been declining further over the last few games. Harris and Jackson have 27 more catches than every other wideout combined, and Wazzu doesn’t employ a tight end and throws to the backs are far less common than in the Air Raid. Only throwing to shorter receivers limits both the types of routes that are really active and the possibilities for contested catches; instead I mostly see first-read throws.
Lastly, I think de Laura himself can be his own worst enemy. While several of his throws are just gorgeous, I see quite a few that are weirdly wobbly, or have a huge wind-up to throw it deep and still fall short, or look generally panicky and inaccurate under pressure. Every Wazzu writer I’ve talked to over the past two seasons has noted he actually looks better throwing on the run, and the most popular theory is that’s because he then doesn’t “get in his head” about it.
Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 - This isn’t the best blitz pickup I’ve ever seen, but it’s enough to buy de Laura time and there’s no real pressure when he releases the ball, so I can’t explain why he doesn’t set his feet properly and use a more natural throwing motion to deliver accurately.
- :07 - Pretty good stunt on the left side of the line here, but de Laura should know by pre-snap alignment that it’s coming and get to his hot route. He does well to gain ground to retreat, but the LT has disengaged with his block and the QB has nowhere to go.
- :23 - de Laura has thrown an interception in all but two games this year, and ill-advised deep ball heaves like this one are a big part of why. With this kind of safety help he shouldn’t be throwing a high-arcing ball with a lot of hangtime in the middle of the field to Jackson.
- :41 - A number of defenses have tried rushing three and dropping eight against Wazzu this year, and on-balance it’s been effective. Three of the five targets are short of the line to gain and the other two both have safety help over them. The QB checks it down awfully early with no real pressure coming and no back can survive four available defenders who’ll get to him before he gets past the line of scrimmage.
The Cougs’ designed rushing plays are both less frequent and less effective than passes. Across the entire FBS season (there are no meaningful differences in the numbers based on who takes the snap), they have 76 successful designed runs vs 88 failed ones, or 46.3%. They rush for just 4.6 yards per carry outside garbage time, and only about 12.5% go for 10+ yards. (If their single longest rush for 64 yards is excluded the average falls to 4.2 YPC; the second longest all year is 25 yards.) I don’t think they’re getting much out of their pistol plays, and they tend to signal rush. I also think that this offensive line is not particularly adept at run blocking, probably since doing so without the very wide splits and surprise runs of the Air Raid just isn’t what they’re accustomed to. Some examples:
- :00 - None of the playside blocks are getting the job done here, and the RG isn’t getting off his combo backside to seal the backer.
- :07 - The Air Raid used this surprise draw play regularly, and it gets its desired effect when two of the backers in this six-man box drop out. But you’ve still got to block well even with surprise on your side, and the left guard and tackle aren’t handling this twist, while the center whiffs on the ILB who’s coming back to the play after dropping.
- :14 - The defense is playing a very wide 33 here, and it seems to have the offensive line baffled. Even with only a few rushers, the back is having a tough time picking out which hole to take and the OL looks like it’s getting in the way.
- :33 - The defense is just too quick here - the RT is beat immediately off the snap, the center can’t get to the MIKE, and the DB coming down on the sweep frees the WILL to clean up.
The modest rushing performance is somewhat remarkable, since I like both of their backs quite a bit: #21 RB Borghi and #3 RB McIntosh. When they get some good blocking, or the defense has lightened the box considerably when expecting a pass, they’re quick and powerful runners. Some examples:
- :00 - The inside and outside backers are both coming off their blocks, but McIntosh runs through both of them and then jukes the safety as well.
- :16 - Similar defensive stunt as above, looks like they’re expecting a pass but given the downfield blocking this is a run not an RPO. McIntosh could run this a little more elegantly cutting inside his lead blocker but getting yards after contact is more his thing.
- :22 - Good job by Borghi here pressing inside and getting the ILB to commit before the lineman seals him, then bouncing outside for a big gain.
- :32 - ASU tried a 5-man box in what they figured were passing situations pretty often; Wazzu punished them with a run like this one almost every time. Nice cuts to dodge the DBs.
Acting HC Dickert was brought in last year to run the defense, and has implemented his 4-2-5 structure from Wyoming. It was schematically quite a change from the 3-down front Wazzu had used for years, but philosophically I’m seeing basically the same thing from the Cougs over the last decade: light, fast bodies on the line of scrimmage who are desperately trying to create havoc, two very long tenured starting linebackers, and kind of a mess in the secondary.
Advanced stats are all over the map for Wazzu’s defensive ranking. SP+ has them at #86, and their Eckel rate is #85 with an EPA success rate ranked #103, but FEI ranks them #22 and beta_rank has them at #23. In my opinion, this is overall a fairly ineffective defense that lacks basic talent elements like size, footspeed, and disciplined secondary play, and that results in an underwater defensive efficiency rate of about 48%.
But the one thing they do extremely well, and what probably explains the adv stats disagreement, is forcing fumbles. In fact they’re the #1 team in the country at forcing fumbles with 20 on the season, and the #2 team in fumble recoveries with 11. One of those forced fumbles was in the FCS game and another was on a punt return, but from watching film I can say that the other 18 were real defensive wins against FBS opponents, and they jumped on 10 of them.
Wazzu’s recovery rate is about 50/50, which is to be expected since most football theorists believe recoveries are essentially random. But I believe I’m seeing a concerted effort to strip the ball, and the more they force the more they’re likely to recover. Some examples which aren’t representative but for illustration:
Assuming the rusher manages to hold onto the ball, Wazzu tends to give up a lot of yards on the ground, and opponents who stick to the run game can sustain long, clock-killing drives. Rush defense is their worst quadrant of play from scrimmage, with 107 successfully defended designed runs vs 122 failed ones, or 46.7%. They surrender an average of 5.4 yards per carry outside garbage time, and allow about 16.5% of runs to go for 10+ yards, which is a below-average explosive rushing defense figure. Some examples:
- :00 - Both backers bite hard on the outside run, so the QB keeps it for a dozen yards. The defensive line is washed inside pretty easily by a much bigger offensive line, but schematically the DE is always going to jump inside in this defense - the offense is taking advantage of the backers’ responsibility to set the edge, and they always play out of the same structure.
- :13 - Again, reader, watch the playside DE - he always jumps inside and the LT has no trouble sealing him. Meanwhile the second level of the defense has to come upfield and outside to set the edge, but on a strongside run the offense has enough blockers to account for everybody and the backside LB is going to get caught in the wash. The WR doesn’t execute a great block on the CB, nor does the inside TE on the playside LB, but it doesn’t matter, the back has so much room to run just by the schematic advantage.
- :26 - Once again the DE is sealed inside, this time by the slicing TE, and the DT is on the ground from the combo block. The DBs don’t have the size or leverage to bring down this ballcarrier, and he’s wisely protecting the ball from their attempts to stand him up and strip it which lets him get even more yards.
- :50 - The backers aren’t poorly positioned here, but this back is just much more powerful than they are and he gets seven yards’ worth after contact.
The most common factor I see in Wazzu’s successful run defenses is simply the offense making a mistake, either in alignment or bad blocking technique. Some examples:
- :00 - I don’t know why both pullers are blocking the same LB and leaving the other LB free for the TFL.
- :08 - Wazzu put eight in the box against OSU for most of the game; the Beavs ran into it anyway and mostly successfully, but on this play I have no idea how the blocking scheme is supposed to work. The Cougs have a numbers advantage on both sides of the center so the back’s cut doesn’t gain him anything.
- :14 - Simple zone read error, the DE is staying square to the line of scrimmage and Wazzu has a free DB backside, so I couldn’t tell you why the QB decides to keep.
- :25 - Finally, a question I can answer: this play fails because this team’s OL is incompetently coached.
The Cougs’ pass defense is somewhat better, though still underwater at 130 successfully defended designed passing plays vs 135 failed ones. They give up 7.3 yards per pass attempt, and about 15.5% of opponent dropbacks result in gains of 15+ yards. Those are mediocre numbers all around, a little below average but not appalling. I think the best part of their pass defense is their edge rush, specifically three defensive ends who play much better than their modest talent ratings out of high school would imply: #80 DE B. Jackson, #10 DE Stone, and #27 DE Taylor.
Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses:
- :00 - The No.1 receiver has his DB beat on the inside step before his out-breaking route, and if the QB had a bit longer in the pocket he probably would have found him, but instead he checks it down under some pressure for a minimal gain on 3rd & 10.
- :09 - OSU is employing an eight-man protection against just four rushers, but Stone gets through anyway. Dropping seven against just two in the pattern makes coverage pretty easy.
- :15 - Great move by Taylor to split the left guard and tackle. He comes through too wide for a sack but gets his hand on the throwing arm for a strip that the offense recovers.
- :29 - Taylor’s quick penetration saves this play by earning a holding flag as Jackson comes around on the twist to flush the QB. He’s too quick for the rest of the defense to catch but the officials do their job here.
If the pass rush doesn’t get home within 3 seconds, or there’s a coverage void left by the blitz, or they allow the QB to scramble out of the pocket, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the secondary to defend the play. Each of those events occurring has a very high correlation with a failed passing defense play on my tally sheet. Some examples:
- :00 - The hot route on this blitz is the TE on the crosser and I’m not sure why the QB doesn’t pop it to him immediately. But he dodges the blitz in the backfield and the rest of the defense has lost track of where the line of scrimmage is, letting him run the full 15 yards.
- :10 - Wazzu is showing blitz and sure enough it comes, but the LB who backs out has way too far to run to provide underneath coverage on the outside comeback route, and the nickel can’t either because he’s blitzing.
- :23 - The corner gets stuck having to defend the split-out TE in man coverage, but Wazzu doesn’t have any DB big enough for this job.
- :41 - I think the backer is a little surprised that neither blocker actually blocks him, but at any rate the QB has enough time to spot a coverage hole this big. The nickel is covering empty grass despite the corner pointing to the dig he’s supposed to be taking as the vertical carries the high safety. That safety then does not do a great job of tackling.