Defending Washington State

Coming off the huge win over Notre Dame, Arizona State traveled up to Corvallis perhaps too confident in itself, and the result against Oregon State suffered. Head coach Todd Graham blamed himself for the loss to the Beavers and the defense’s relapse of ability to prevent the big play. Will the Sun Devils be able to bounce back against the pass-heavy Washington State offense?

Lack of focus, overlooking the opponent, cold weather; whatever you want to attribute the loss to at Oregon State last week, No. 13 Arizona State just didn’t get the job done.

With two weeks left in the season, the Sun Devils no longer control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South race, needing to win out as well as have UCLA lose a game to either USC or Stanford to snag a spot in the championship game.

“Our players understand that every single goal that we have is still there,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “Now, we are not in control of it, have got to have some help to be able to get to the championship game, but that’s why you play 12 games. You play every single game, count them all up at the end of it and we will see what happens.

“That’s just the nature of college football. We have been telling them for six weeks, every time you win a game; the next game becomes the most important game of the year. You just don’t have time to sit and dwell on what happened. You have got to move on, hit the restart button and team who obviously have the ability to do that are the ones that are going to be successful. We put (Oregon State) behind us, we learned from our mistakes and you go out and correct them this week to get back on the winning track.”

Added freshman corner Armand Perry: “You just can’t take anybody for granted. We were coming off a big win, and I’m not going to say that we underestimated them (Oregon State), but I feel like we all could have done a little bit more. It’s life, it’s something that you just learn from and get better from it.”

Arizona State will take another sub-.500 team this week in Washington State (3-7), which comes into the matchup off a win over Oregon State two weeks ago, and a full bye week to prepare for the Devils.

The Cougars have had their share of woes this season: three losses of seven points or less, and then a blowout defeat at the hands of USC in which they lost their quarterback and leader, Connor Halliday.

Yet, a Mike Leach coached team should never be counted out, especially with the type of offense he runs and how well the unit can execute at times, which they showed in the 39-32 victory over the Beavers in Corvallis on Nov. 8th.

“One thing is their execution,” Patterson said, “in some ways it is very simplistic and within that simplicity of their concepts, it is very complex if that makes sense. They can execute at such a high level throwing the football. They have certain routes and adjustments that attack different coverages. But the timing of their throws, quarterbacks being on the same page as their wide receivers, it’s very impressive the amount of yards that they throw for in a game.”

Leach is best known for his Air Raid offense, an intriguing scheme that’s truly unlike any other. As Patterson mentioned above, the Air Raid has simplistic concepts, yet within those concepts are a complex set of decisions and on-the-fly adjustments.

Plays are called and routes are ran based on the leverage that a defense shows, and receivers are often asked to make alterations mid-route depending on what defenders are doing. Through meticulous preparation and repetitions in practice, Leach is able to instill the knowledge in his players needed to be successful at a major-conference level.

Confused yet? Let’s take a look at one of the most common called pass plays in the Air Raid offense to briefly show how the offense works: Four verticals (h/t to Smart Football for the screen shots).

As you can see, the outside receivers have an outside release, and depending on the way the corner plays them, they can try to beat him vertically, or break down on a comeback. The inside receivers will start out in vertical routes, and can continue running them, or stop and find a hole in the zone. In order for this play to be successful, the quarterback has to see what the receivers see as far as coverages are concerned.

“They (the receivers) have to be a good unit to make adjustments like that,” Perry said. “We are just going to study a lot of film and get the looks in practice to recognize the plays when we get out there so we can fly around.”

Let’s look at another couple of common play calls in Leach’s scheme: Mesh, the Shallow Cross, and the H-Stick (h/t to Smart Football and Cougcenter for the screen shots).

As you can see, the receivers have multiple options on each play, similar to the four verticals concept. The mesh play (first screenshot), shows the triangle concept, which is popularly used to stress a zone defense. Typically, the triangle concept is used with three receivers to attack two defenders and stretch them a certain way to get a man uncovered – it can be broken down more, but for the sake of being concise, that’ll have to do.

These are just some of the passing concepts that you will see on Saturday when the Cougars come to Tempe.

Leach and Washington State pass more than anybody in the country. Through 10 games this season, the Cougars have attempted a total of 646 passes, completing 438 of those for a 67.8% rate, good for seventh in the nation.

“This is what DBs play for,” Perry said. “We are going to get a lot of opportunities to get our hands on the ball because they are a heavy pass team so we are just going to have a lot of opportunities to make plays. They have good receivers that run good routes. Since they don’t run the ball a whole lot, a hitch screen for them is considered a run play for them. We just have to play top down and physical.”

Similar to USC and UCLA, Washington State will often throw to short routes short of the sticks to get the offense rolling and the defense in a lull, and then hit you over the top. Or when the defense begins to key on the pass and only the pass, Leach will hit you with a draw to pick up needed yards.

“That’s the thing; they throw to set up the run,” Patterson said. “They basically run to try and keep you honest. What tends to happen is you sit there and you can’t fall asleep – you’re sitting there playing pass every down and all of the sudden a zone or a draw is running right up behind you. We have got to revert it back, and you can’t allow big plays and stay sound vertically.”

Patterson also said that the defensive game plan will be a bit different than the previous weeks because of the scheme that Leach brings to the table. Due to the quick-hitch passing game, Patterson and Graham will pull the reigns back on the blitz a smidge.

“You can’t sit there and just defend the whole time, you still have got to stay true to who you are but on the same hand you have got to be smart at how you go about doing it,” he said. “You will see a lot more direct pressure coming right into the teeth of the quarterback.”

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