Wazzu has gone back to the Air Raid after two years of a heavily modified Run & Shoot, though as discussed in my Summer preview of the Cougars, new OC Morris has hybridized it with a lot of spread-option concepts and uses a tight end on about a third of all snaps.
It’s been a bumpy start at the FBS level for FCS transfer and Jerry Rice Award winner #1 QB C. Ward, who came to Pullman along with Morris from Incarnate Word. He puts a lot of zip on the ball and triggers very quickly when his read is open, and I think he’s a very dangerous quarterback at the couple of things he does well. But there’s only a few of those things, and I think his toolkit right now is fairly limited. Michael and I discussed his performance so far on the podcast at length; I would characterize him as a one-read QB at this point, his throwing motion and footwork are very unorthodox, and I haven’t seen him throw deep down the field with accuracy at all.
That’s resulted in some pretty uncharacteristic passing efficiency and explosiveness numbers for the Cougs compared to their years under former head coach (and Morris’ mentor at Texas Tech) Mike Leach. Outside of garbage time and including their surprisingly tight opener against FCS Idaho, they have 44 successful designed passing plays vs 52 failed ones, given the down & distance, underwater at just 46% efficiency. (Only one of the twelve stats I track on both sides of the ball changes significantly when excluding the FCS data, and it’s on defense.)
The Cougs are only averaging an adjusted 6.8 yards per attempt, which is a slightly below average number and pretty concerning for a team that throws the ball three-quarters of the time. Their explosiveness rate is a bit above average, with about 16.5% of passes gaining 15+ yards, almost entirely on broken tackles for significant yards after catch (Wisconsin blew several big ones). For comparison, in Leach’s last year with Wazzu they were at 55% efficiency, 8.2 adjusted YPA, and 18% explosiveness … and that was a 6-7 season.
As is typical with the Air Raid passing tree, the offense is almost entirely concerned with a series of short routes and using them to march down the field methodically. Most of the downfield passing game will look familiar to observers of Leach’s teams, and Ward executes these throws pretty well when they’re there. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – This RPO quick slant has been by far the most productive addition that Morris has made to the system. The safety and backer both bite on the run and there’s no underneath coverage. The RT gets too far downfield and should have drawn an IDP flag.
- :06 – Adding a tight end has been useful as well, creating another angle for the defense to cover in zone. Here he draws off the OLB and leaves the quick hitch open.
- :12 – The LG just plain misses his block and Ward has a backer in his face, but his release is so quick he can still dump it off.
- :18 – Here it’s the RG getting dumped in his lap, but Ward still puts so much velocity on the ball that he can place this far hash throw exactly where it needs to be to elude the corner and convert the 3rd down.
The most significant issue with the passing offense is that if the first read isn’t there then the play is likely to result in some pocket drama. The offensive line, which lost both its longtime tackles after last year, has a very hard time sustaining sufficient protection for Ward to even get to a second read, and Ward hasn’t yet shown that he’ll step up and go through the progression rather than scramble or take a sack. More than one-third of all dropbacks for a downfield pass result in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is a very poor figure in my experience, and just six of those scrambles have resulted in successful gains. Some examples:
- :00 – With past versions of Wazzu’s Air Raid I’d tell anyone who’d listen not to blitz because the line would pick it up and the scheme had so many quick routes built into it that it wasn’t worth sacrificing pieces in coverage. The calculus has changed with this line and with the back staying in far more often to block instead of run out as a checkdown, as I saw multiple cover-1 blitzes work very well like this one beating both tackles.
- :08 – Wisconsin played an interesting 1-4-6 for most of the game, taking away the first read simply by having more guys in coverage. They’d still get through, as with the RG getting beat here, and Ward would often run around and then try something ill-advised.
- :27 – The defense is dropping the OLB to the boundary and overloading from the field by rushing a DB instead. The RT doesn’t see him and Ward pays the price.
- :33 – Here’s the other predominant result from combining a first-read takeaway with beating a lineman – a scramble followed by a completed but unproductive pass.
Screen passes are a significant part of the offense, more than 16% of all plays, and the Cougs have gotten two of their biggest gains as well as two touchdowns on screens. However they’re not very efficient at them and have one more failed screen than they do successes, between telegraphing the play, perimeter blocking problems, and some weird ball placement issues from Ward. Here’s a representative sample of all screens:
- :00 – I’m not sure if Ward is adjusting his angle because of the rusher or if that’s where he’d normally put it because of his near-sidearm release, but at any rate putting it on the receiver’s shoelaces on screens wasn’t uncommon. A poor WR block blows up the play before he can recover from stooping over for the ball.
- :11 – The center’s not fast enough to properly set up this tunnel screen block, but the defender whiffs on the tackle and they still get some chunk yardage.
- :21 – Trips without an immediate release up the sideline is a dead giveaway of a receiver screen, this DB has done his film study.
- :33 – Just great timing here, slip screen against the blitz with all the DBs run off in man coverage. Not accounting for the back on 3rd down is a huge mistake by this defense.
Wazzu’s rushing offense so far is difficult to characterize. They run the ball so rarely that the dataset is really too small to have confidence in the results, and almost a quarter of their total designed rushing yardage comes from a single play against a pretty hapless Colorado St defense. I believe that the Cougs’ rushing numbers are best captured by simply striking that one big play from the data, in which case they have 13 successful designed runs vs 19 failed ones which is under 41% efficiency, at 4.9 adjusted YPC and 15% explosiveness, which are poor to mediocre figures. Here’s a representative sample of all runs:
- :00 – Short yardage, a light box, and the DE giving up his leverage to make a useless hit on the puller is a recipe for a successful run.
- :07 – The DT gets past the C into the backfield quickly enough to interrupt the pull, meanwhile the LG just misses his block on the other DT, and the LT loses control of the backer.
- :14 – This might look familiar from last week, it’s a zone run with the LG/C combo blocking one of the DTs, but then the C never moves up to the second level so the backer has a clean hit on the ballcarrier.
I think new head coach Dickert has done an impressive job since arriving as DC in 2020 at cleaning up what had been the worst Pac-12 defense for years and smoothly switching schemes to his 4-2-5. There are still significant depth issues with this squad, particularly in the linebackers and secondary, but the speed of the defensive front and how many good edge players they have is shocking considering their talent ratings. In what might be a first for Wazzu, this appears to be a defense-led team, and it was fun to hear Michael’s take on that flip on the podcast.
That said, I’m not yet convinced the Cougs’ good defensive efficiency numbers so far are sustainable in Pac-12 play. They struggled against an FCS team, dominated a G5 team with the worst sacks allowed stat in the country, and squeaked out a P5 win against a Wisconsin team making a baffling number of mistakes. Like Oregon, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding Wazzu since I think both teams’ marquee win to date was against an overrated team that wasn’t as physical in the trenches as their coaches thought they were.
Statistically, the biggest improvement the 2022 Cougs have recorded compared to previous seasons is in rush defense, where they had been a real doormat for most of the last two decades. In Wazzu’s three games so far this season, they’ve successfully defended 43 designed runs vs 33 failed ones outside garbage time, or 56.5%, an above average number though not championship-caliber. Explosiveness is even better: they’re limiting their opponents to an adjusted 3.8 YPC, and only about 9% of opponent rushes gain 10+ yards, both excellent figures. Some examples of quality rush defense:
- :00 – The DT and DE beat the right side of the line inside and clog up the gaps, and the LB comes down for outside containment when the back tries to bounce.
- :08 – The speed of the ends off the snap is remarkable, and key to their success against a much bigger set of blockers. One of them gets inside the TE instantly, and the other just embarrasses the LT.
- :19 – This type of play was the dullest part of my film study, everybody watching knows it’s going to be yet another run including all eight guys in the box who just gum up the works with bodies. Wazzu played man coverage for most of the game for this reason.
- :29 – When the opponent showed run, like this 20-personnel look, Wazzu usually brought down a safety into the box as a third quasi-backer. The blocking scheme doesn’t account for him and he gets an easy tackle.
The reason I remain skeptical as to whether Wazzu’s rush defense is for real is that I think a lot of it is based on stacking the box against a very stubborn rushing team in Camp Randall and otherwise aggressively slanting right off the snap, which can result in running themselves out of the play if they play a better (and smarter) blocking approach. Some examples:
- :00 – The OL stretching one way always got the DL to slant the same way, and they’re so aggressive they run themselves out of the play and don’t have the ability to stop the OL from climbing to the second level and taking on the backers. The only defense Wazzu has from this kind of play is the backside end, but it just takes a nudge from the slicing TE to take him out.
- :07 – Here it’s the backers themselves overpursuing playside, the only one who’s left backside is a corner who’s easily blocked by a TE. This creates a one-on-one with the safety, who loses to the back.
- :15 – On the reverse angle, watch the backside DE and DT turn their bodies sideways to the line of scrimmage, completely out of the play and allowing the RT to climb to the backer. The DB beats the WR inside but the back sidesteps him, and the puller takes out the other backer.
- :36 – Both backers take the same gap, a miscommunication I saw pretty often. The LT is taking out some frustration on the DE.
Pass defense has improved even more, though I’m also uncertain as to how much of it is for real. Over all three games this year, Wazzu has successfully defended 61 designed passing plays vs 35 failures, or 63.5%, which is a championship number (this falls to 56% if the FCS data is excluded, but that’s still an above average number). They’re allowing 7.1 adjusted YPA, which is a bit better than average, and 18% of opponent passes gain 15+ yards, which is a bit worse (those numbers don’t meaningfully change by excluding the FCS data).
Mostly what I’m seeing is a great pass rush, and Michael and I were both shocked at how much the tackling has improved this year, but I also think their veteran starting corners are finally showing some real aptitude for the occasional high stakes pass break-up. Some examples:
- :00 – The backups are no slouches either but these two DEs have been the starters since Dickert took over in 2020 and I’ve always thought they were this defense’s best asset.
- :11 – I never would have expected effective man coverage the entire route concluding with a breakup out of Wazzu’s corners prior to this year, but both the starters here got at least one like this in each game.
- :29 – Wazzu’s been effective at generating sacks not just because their ends keep beating tackles, but because the inside guys stay disciplined when the pocket breaks down and help clean up instead of rushing for glory themselves. Check out how the DT here backs out and waits for the QB to pick an escape lane.
- :44 – This is the surprising thing about the Cougs’ ends – you’d expect fast guys to run around the corner, but lots of times they just muscle the tackle aside instead, like this play in which he strikes to get the RT off his base then blows past him to affect the throw.
But I haven’t been very impressed with the linebackers and safeties in coverage, and if the pass rush doesn’t get home right away offenses have been able to pick them apart for big gains. Some examples:
- :00 – A cover-1 blitz, Wazzu’s most common, leaves the DBs on islands and the high safety is rarely fast enough to get to the play. Releasing four downfield will usually produce at least one open guy, especially against the nickel or strong safety.
- :13 – The other option against man is attacking the backers with TEs, I thought this was a real vulnerability and was baffled why Wisconsin didn’t try it more.
- :26 – Now for cover-2 zone, but the safeties aren’t aggressive enough. Once the WR clears the 45 he should be coming down hard since that’s the only possible receiver who could be in his zone, but instead he’s caught in his backpedal.
- :36 – When they say this coverage shell is “open middle” they’re not kidding. 4-verts also works against zone, the safeties have to bail against the deeper routes and the backers aren’t reacting fast enough to get into the hole.