The major project in replacing last year’s playcaller Eric Morris with this year’s OC Arbuckle wasn’t switching systems, as they both come from the same Texas Tech (by way of Western Kentucky and a couple Texas FCS schools) branch of the Air Raid coaching tree marrying Mike Leach’s passing pattern to various run schemes which also produced Kliff Kingsbury and Zach Kittley.
This is Arbuckle’s first year as a Power-5 playcaller and second overall – he was a QC coach and analyst as recently as 2021, under Kittley at WKU – and when previewing the Cougars this Summer I suspected he’d employ a similar route tree, run-pass balance, and down & distance situational plan, and just cross his fingers for competent execution of that system to raise their efficiency and explosiveness rates.
The schematic prediction has proven accurate, but in their five combined FBS games I’ve charted there has been little real improvement in Wazzu’s passing offense effectiveness. The Cougs are still underwater at 48.5% efficiency on designed passing plays outside of garbage time (89 successes vs 94 failures, given the down & distance), producing 7.8 adjusted YPA and with 14% of passes gaining 15+ yards. Each of those numbers are up a little from 2022, but not much, and they haven’t played most of the league’s good pass defenses yet.
On the podcast, Jamey and I spent quite some time trying to solve the puzzle of why the Cougs’ offense started the year looking like contenders but have in their last two games been totally stymied. After close to an hour of very good discussion, I think we arrived at a satisfying answer (or set of answers). I believe the reason it’s such a complicated puzzle is that there’s no singular, unalloyed problem that opponents have to exploit, but rather four half-problems … in isolation, the Cougs can overcome them and they’re not noticeable, but when they overlap they’re completely devastating. To wit:
- #1 QB Ward really has improved his throwing mechanics and can hit the deep ball, but he has to concentrate to do it right so reverts easily to “bad Cam” which means problems snowball fast;
- The offensive line can be okay at pass blocking, but they’re terrible at run blocking, so defenses can get away with light boxes and still stop the run and get pressure;
- Arbuckle called a confident game against some weak pass defenses (including OSU, interestingly), but he “turtled” when the UCLA game got tough and continued playing scared the next week even though he didn’t need to;
- Wazzu has a real ball security problem, putting the ball on the deck 1.83 times per game (4th most in the Power-5) which keeps killing promising drives in the worst possible way.
The inability to stretch the field vertically was the biggest of last year’s handicaps, and it was genuinely and pleasantly surprising to both Jamey and I to see that the offseason reports of Ward working to fix his footwork and transfer power properly to accurately throw it deep turned out to actually be true. He’s hit more true deep shots in five FBS games this season than he did in all of 2022 on my tally sheet, and getting his mechanics right clearly has been instrumental to doing so.
However, I’ve also repeatedly seen Ward’s mechanics break down under even a little bit of pocket distress, as well as just not seeing open guys on downfield throws when that’s the proper read. My guess is that he hasn’t fully internalized being a progression pocket passer yet and that years of spurious “if it works it ain’t broken” logic under Morris (who was his coach in 2020-21 at Incarnate Word as well) are hard habits to break.
At any rate, it’s evident that the deep throw is highly inconsistent – sometimes it’s there and it’s beautiful, and that alone is responsible for the +1.3 YPA improvement compared to last year’s average, but on most 2023 dropbacks Ward’s production, mechanics, and read of the field are indistinguishable from 2022. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – This throw is just impossible to think about Ward making last year, it’s so much more mechanically sound – he’s pointing his hips to the receiver, transferring his weight to his plant foot, and transmitting his power smoothly from his lower body all the way through his fingertips to drop a dime.
- :10 – Again watch Ward’s form here, it’s nearly identical, he’s clearly been practicing. He’s whipping a little at the end — watch his back leg fly up — and that’s why it’s a bit underthrown, but his receiver has such a lead on the depleted OSU secondary it doesn’t matter.
- :23 – Now compare his form and decision-making in a pocket collapse situation (with just three rushers against seven in protection) – flat hips, open feet, dropped left shoulder, no weight transfer. He has three years of college experience throwing this way so this is what he reverts to when he has to get it out quick, but it’s nearly picked off by double coverage.
- :39 – Another breakdown with the defense rushing three, and Ward can’t find his outlet. Yogi Roth draws a big box around it on the high replay, it’s the inside go who’s cooking the coverage. I don’t know if Ward doesn’t see it, but I think it’s more likely that he can’t make a throw of this depth with his old, quick form and isn’t confident he has the time for the deliberate steps of his new, proper form, so instead he gives up and bails.
Otherwise, the passing scheme is full of Air Raid staples familiar to this branch of the tree which Oregon has encountered several times in recent years, and focuses on marching the field with short efficiency passes which make up almost 70% of called plays. Here’s a representative sample of such successful plays:
- :00 – Two defenders are getting home on the blitz but the ball is already out on the slant. Watching this tape was weird, for the first half Wisconsin’s zone defense was constantly just standing around defending grass uselessly like this, like they’d never encountered an Air Raid passing pattern before in their lives.
- :08 – This mesh-sit is a staple of the offense, here the OLB bails out while the nickel rushes, but then the OLB forgets to actually cover the crosser in his zone, instead pursuing the back into the ILB’s zone.
- :15 – Screens make up about 20% of passes, and throwing them to the boundary got some traction in this game against UCLA’s quick edge off the line by getting into the space that opened.
- :28 – On a consistent yards-per-play basis, this comeback is Wazzu’s most effective play and they should have been calling it a lot more often against Arizona. Ward can get it out quickly and the receivers can get the separation they need off the break.
Other than the prospect of the deep ball, as well as a few trick plays involving backup #10 QB Mateer with a decidedly mixed record, there isn’t much that’s schematically novel or which leverages any particular personnel advantage Wazzu has, in my opinion. Defenses, at least the halfway competent ones, have picked up on a number of tendencies and giveaways; I would estimate about half of unsuccessful designed passing plays this year were shut down without any significant execution problems from the offense.
Furthermore, I think the already conservative nature of the Air Raid playbook (some misperceive it as a high risk, seat-of-the-pants offense, but in reality it’s akin to a ground & pound ball control strategy but conducted through the air) has been excessively compounded by Arbuckle’s playcalling in their last six quarters of play, constantly going to hopeless screen passes and unproductive completions in the flats. Some examples:
- :00 – Nothing but short stuff here, which the defense has smothered with five underneath defenders in cover-3 while rushing only three. The corner jamming the X delays both the sitdown and the only quasi-deep option, more than enough time for the rush to get home.
- :08 – The coverage knows this pattern pretty well, with double layers for each of the inside throws. The out-break under the X’s go is very well worn at this point, and the DB just jumps it.
- :26 – This double stack meant a flanker screen every time Wazzu trotted it out; it’s doomed by leverage even if they were getting good blocking, and as it is their ball security issue crops up yet again with a loose carry as the receiver sticks his hand out instead of clutching it tight with two guys tackling him at once.
- :51 – I’m pretty certain Arizona knew the RB wheel to the boundary is the hot route against the blitz when they’re aligned like this because this was the result every time. I think they were deliberately getting Ward to throw it so they could make the quick tackle.
Of course, there have in fact been execution errors, lots of them, chiefly having to do with constant pocket breakdowns and Ward’s reaction to them. I measure a sack, scramble, or throwaway per dropback rate of 37.5% on my tally sheet, which is one of the highest I’ve ever seen from a Power-5 team. I don’t think this is quite the worst offensive line in the league – a full recounting of the personnel moves in the offseason and shuffling during the year is on the podcast, but it’s largely returners from last season — and a lot of those scrambles come from Ward breaking the pocket earlier than he strictly speaking needs to, but at any rate the offense simply can’t count on a clean pocket.
Ward remains an elusive scrambler, and manages to produce a successful play on about a quarter of all pocket breakdowns (largely due to defenses getting greedy and abandoning coverage). But on the other hand the negative outcomes to breakdowns have been more severe than the average team, with a significantly higher rate of sacks and turnovers, as opposed to throwaways, short scrambles, or unproductive completions. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – More mechanical breakdowns after a pocket collapse from a three-man rush. This play also shows off something bizarre I kept seeing, which is multiple routes converging in the same area, usually a play design no-no. This is hardly a well advised throw into coverage but I actually think the breakup goes to one of the Wazzu receivers.
- :15 – The fumble issue has happened to several ballcarriers, but none more than Ward himself, who tends to hold the ball very loosely when scrambling and is prone to having it poked out.
- :32 – As with many of his scrambles, I’m not entirely certain how Ward bounced out of what looked like a sure sack. I do know how he completed the pass though, by keeping his eyes downfield and finding the receiver that the backer left open when he gave up on his coverage assignment, which happens a lot.
- :47 – Speed rush off the edge isn’t really necessary to get through this line, bigger interior guys can just walk through it and blow up the running back in pass protection as well.
In terms of playcalling the rushing offense is just as perfunctory as last year, and just like then it’s mostly reserved for surprisingly effective short yardage pickups. But I think Jamey was right on the podcast that Arbuckle wants to be able to run the ball about a third of the time and on standard downs, and this year it’s just not happening – the Cougs’ designed rush efficiency has collapsed ten percentage points to 41% (30 successes vs 43 failures), and yardage has been more than cut in half, down to an absolutely pathetic 2.6 adjusted YPC, with just 4% of rushes gaining 10+ yards.
In addition to the typical problems that creates in terms of the inability to sit on a lead and predictability to the defense, being only 30% effective when rushing on 1st downs means they’re terrified of doing so because this offense has no ability to operate if they get off schedule – they only succeed on 40% of 2nd & long situations, and 19% of 3rd & long situations. So 1st down running, which was over a 34% frequency through the OSU game, has collapsed to just a 22% frequency in the last two weeks. On the podcast, Jamey and I discussed how this forms a virtuous circle – being predictable on 1st down gives defenses an advantage, which makes Wazzu more conservative, which puts them behind the chains, which gives defenses more of an advantage.
Here’s a representative sample of the rushing offense:
- :00 – The RG has his hat on the wrong side so he’s shed easily, the C just whiffs, and the LT gets thrown to the ground.
- :18 – The LG misses his second level block, the LT is lunging and has no power, and the C doesn’t turn and seal his block so he breaks free to help with the tackle.
- :23 – This was one of the two successful designed runs in this game, it’s a short-yardage pickup in which the back is willing to just smash his face into an unblocked defender after two yards, which is Wazzu’s specialty.
- :29 – I don’t think there are actually any live RPO tags on any of Wazzu’s read option plays, despite the appearances of the QB looking at the overhang backer in this 33-stack (which Arizona played whenever Wazzu had a TE in which was most of the game, and not a “dollar” defense as has been repeatedly inaccurately reported). The backers can wait for the back to fight through the scrum because the three down linemen are more than adequate to clog up everything inside and they just have to worry about a bounce.
When Head Coach Dickert arrived as DC back in 2020 he re-arranged the defense to a 4-2-5 structure and it’s stuck ever since. It takes better advantage of the defensive linemen that tend to wind up in Pullman, particularly the edges, than the 3-down systems that preceded it, but curiously they never switch out of it under any circumstances (with the extremely rare exception of inches to go on the goalline). They’re almost always in a strict cover-2 coverage shell, with the only variation being where the nickel lines up — either as a box safety or out wide — which puts a lot of pressure on the pair of linebackers to do everything, and I think the squad as a whole rises or falls with that unit.
Over their five FBS games, Wazzu is looking like a solidly above average pass defense, with a 54% defensive success rate against called passing plays (86 vs 73), and limiting opponents to 6.4 adjusted YPA and 14% of passes gaining 15+ yards.
From watching film, I think their strongest units right now are their defensive ends and cornerbacks. For four years now I’ve been writing about how much I like their starters off the edge, #10 DE Stone and #80 DE B. Jackson, and there’s not really any falloff to the rotational guys in #95 DE Edson and #20 DE Roff either (though one other backup, #50 DE Falatea, is sadly out for the year with an ACL tear, and when Roff missed a couple games with an injury we saw sophomore #45 DE Stevenson come in who’s undersized at this point and was pushed around a bit).
As predicted, #6 CB Smith-Wade retained his starting job and last year’s backup #3 CB Lampkin took over as starter. Both are punching way above their weight class as former low 3-stars from what I’ve seen on tape – I see them get beat from time to time as any corner will, but I’d take them over most of the bluechips playing in, say, Los Angeles. They really thrive when the pass rush is getting home, however, as the typically huge situational differential for Wazzu obtains yet again this year – a 78% defensive success rate against the pass on 3rd & long when the edges can pin their ears back, but when they have to hang back to set the edge against the run and leave it all up to the coverage on 3rd & short that collapses to just 11%.
Here’s a representative sample of successfully defended passing plays:
- :00 – Wisconsin OC Phil Longo was at UNC last year and I didn’t like the way his offense picked up blitzes or built hot routes in; Wazzu takes advantage here with a crossing double A-gap blitz and the QB has nowhere to go.
- :07 – Wazzu defenders are simply towering over OSU’s diminutive receivers and the QB can’t find anyone to throw to. Jackson throws the RT to the ground then swats the ball, which somehow still makes it to the back but the nickel comes up quick to finish it off.
- :25 – Watching Chip Kelly’s insipid attempt at a pocket passer playbook set my teeth on edge for nearly every one of the 50 (!) called passing plays, two-thirds of which were Wazzu wins as all they had to do was trot downfield with a trio of joggers in a straight line.
- :33 – Pretty lousy blitz pickup plan here, Gusta is through immediately and the QB is flushed. But the real eye-catcher is the sweet PBU by Smith-Wade, who along with Lampkin had Arizona’s gifted WRs locked down virtually the entire game (the RBs and TEs were another story).
There are two factors that make me somewhat skeptical about Wazzu maintaining those good pass defense numbers through the end of the season. First, I believe that their FBS opponents to date have included a disproportionately high share of quarterbacks whose play I find questionable. Those are:
- Clay Millen of Colorado State, who had a 92.7 passer rating before being pulled in the middle of a drive in the 3rd quarter against Wazzu during garbage time for Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi, who played Colorado to a standstill in their next game after a week 2 bye and has had the job ever since (including an absolute thriller last week against Boise State);
- DJ Uiagalelei of Oregon State, who’s split time with true freshman Aidan Chiles in every game except against Wazzu;
- Dante Moore of UCLA, who after a cupcake non-con slate has a 95.3 passer rating in conference play, including three consecutive pick-sixes.
In those three games, Wazzu’s defensive success rate against the pass is beyond championship caliber at over 66%. In the other two games, against QBs I think are decent but not Davey O’Brien contenders, Wazzu is under 40%.
The second factor is that their first three FBS opponents kept trying deep shots against the corners, which while successful on several occasions, doesn’t really seem to be the soft spot in their pass coverage. What UCLA and Arizona found and exploited seemed clear on tape from the get-go, which is that Wazzu has a massive problem with underneath coverage. As Jamey and I discussed on the podcast, the biggest change in personnel from last year is the loss of several quality linebackers – one to the NFL, two more getting poached by other Power-5 programs through the portal – and unfortunately for the Cougs, they’re now probably in the worst spot they’ve been in for a decade in talent at the position, particularly in coverage ability and footspeed to the play. That’s meant offenses can not only reliably hit short and intermediate passes, but receivers can turn them into big plays after the catch.
Here’s a representative sample of failed pass defenses:
- :00 – After two consecutive outside screens out of this same 3x1 formation to start the drive which gained eight yards apiece, Wazzu is aligned for a third. That’s not only giving single coverage to the lone receiver to the field but the safeties are slow to recognize it with their eyes in the backfield looking for another screen. Lampkin is pretty well cooked, if the turf monster didn’t get the WR he’d probably have a TD.
- :13 – Everybody’s down in the box including both safeties and the nickel, and play-action pulls everybody in even closer. Smith-Wade just gets dusted here and the safety is much too slow to recognize what’s going on to help.
- :33 – Eventually UCLA figured out how to line up to take advantage of Wazzu’s c-2 in the redzone, which pointlessly keeps the boundary safety almost to the numbers while the free safety is on the hashes, and a linebacker has to cover the slot on on open trips to the field. Even if he were a quick backer, and he’s not, this would be an impossible route to cover with the safeties aligned like this.
- :44 – More than half of Arizona’s receiving yards came on the third of receptions that went to RBs and TEs, on underneath throws like this. The high replay angle shows why – the secondary is doing a good job of taking away the deep stuff, but having cleared out there’s now a lot of grass to run into and only the linebacker to stop the RB dumpoff, and he’s nowhere to be found in coverage then gets stiffarmed into the dirt when he does arrive.
Rush defense is underwater at 42% defensive success rate (57 vs 79), a consistent effect in every game except the opener against CSU and their 121st ranked offense in F+ advanced statistics. They’re allowing about 5 yards per carry, which is about average for designed rushes, but they’ve been doing a pretty good job of preventing explosive rushing as only about 12% of opponents’ runs gain 10+ yards.
Over the Summer I thought Wazzu was in a pretty dire situation regarding their defensive tackles, but they got a late addition from Colorado transfer #89 DT Rodman, the decision to play true freshman #88 DT Laufau hasn’t backfired, and returners #60 DT Gusta and #15 DT Malani have stepped up their games much more than their prior track records indicated. I don’t think it’s the best group of interior linemen in the league but it’s not the catastrophe it might have been. In particular they grade out very well on my tally sheet against stretch runs and other wide lateral plays, where their smaller size and greater speed is actually an advantage. Some examples:
- :00 – The end pinches in and the tackle knocks the LG over him, which delays the second level block, creating a two-on-one against this outside run; the back might have been able to beat one but not both.
- :07 – The angle is just too shallow here, Wazzu has always won these going back a decade – the Cougs’ front is just faster to the play than your o-line is.
- :14 – Straight ahead inside running is a pretty mixed bag, their best plays look like this and for lack of a better term just look like piles of humans. Really the problem is UCLA has too many blockers here and they’re all pushing inwards, this is an inelegant run scheme and Wazzu is happy to match.
- :22 – Watch how the front reacts to the line’s first step on this outside zone run, they don’t need much of a clue but they’re definitely reacting to it and in unison. Jackson is setting the edge without getting too deep, Rodman wins on the backside, and even the backer beats the second level block and gets to the play.
In addition to the general issue with the linebackers in tackling which compounds problems against any type of rushing play, the biggest rushing vulnerability comes in cutback or misdirection runs, which use the front’s aggression against it. In other words, plays that signal to the entire front to start running in one direction virtually always get them to do so, and if that play keeps going in that direction the defense can do pretty well … but if the play then cuts back against the front in the other direction, the back suddenly has a lot of open grass to run into.
Here’s a representative sample of failed rush defenses:
- :00 – The motion and RPO read keep the backer and DB out of the box, giving the offense a numbers advantage. Wazzu wins frontside with the end, and the other backer and both DTs are quickly following the pullers – because of course they are – so this play is shut down as designed, but the back just makes a little backside cut and now he’s one-on-one with the nickel, whom he runs through to pick up six yards.
- :08 – Wazzu fell for this cutback run every single time. The entire line, both backers, and the box safety are all moving with the initial play motion, fast enough that the RG alone seals both backers at once when the back makes his cut the other way into open grass.
- :26 – Once the blockers get up to the second level it’s over, the backers just don’t have any ability to get off blocks. If Kelly weren’t for some reason using a 2-star career special teamer as his starting RG and had someone who could actually seal the DT this would have been 10 yards before the safety touched him.
- :34 – Stone is going to race to the mesh so the ILB comes down to occupy the LT for him. He and the rest of the front get washed down easily since they’re expecting an outside run the other way, and the only one left to stop the cutback is the remaining ILB, who’s … well I don’t know what he was doing, really, but it wasn’t helpful.