Washington State Offensive Scheme
Through four seasons in the Palouse, Mike Leach hasn't had a winning season and it's largely been tough sledding even though Washington State has put up pretty big numbers on the offensive side of the ball in his patented Air Raid offense, which is the most pass-heavy scheme in major college football.
Leach has worked to not only get his players fully assimilated to the scheme but also layer in enough talent to compete with the traditional big boys of the Pac-12. While that's a difficult proposition to be sure, the Cougars are not only competitive this season, but actually playing very well and winning their games at a pretty good clip.
The Cougars have won five of their last seven games and nearly made it six of seven if not for a close lost to then-No. 8 Stanford last week in which Leach's team had the Cardinal on the ropes into the fourth quarter.
Saturday's game between Arizona State and the Cougars in Pullman brings sophomore quarterback Luke Falk again the forefront a year after he ascended to the starting job following an injury to Connor Halliday. In just his second career start, Falk had 601 yards passing on 74 attempts in that game last season on Nov. 22, but four costly interceptions as the Cougars lost 52-31. This season in eight games he has just six interceptions despite throwing the ball over 100 times more than his next closest peer in the Pac-12. Falk's interception per throw rate is an excellent 75-1, which is better than every quarterback in the league who has seen significant action except Arizona's Anu Solomon. Falk is making better decisions overall -- and also probably gotten a bit lucky -- and that's one of the main factors in the Cougars' success.
The Air Raid offense is a system that most frequently uses a single back and almost never a tight end and throws the ball on 80-90 percent of plays, a lot of which incorporate underneath rub routes, shallow crosses and other concepts which get receivers running more lateral to the line of scrimmage. That isn't to suggest the Cougars don't throw the ball down the field, because they do, a lot. But there a lot of shorter, high percentage type throws and the Cougars overall complete a higher percentage of their pass attempts than any other team in the Pac-12.
Washington State uses a fair amount of slot receiver motions, with undersized 5-foot-9, 170 pound Robert Lewis (No. 15) most prominently involved in this regard. There's also a lot of routes run by the running back but nothing more common than the flat route designed to drag a linebacker to the area or force defense to play some type of zone coverage with a defensive back in the flat, and perhaps more importantly, to maximize the spreading of defenses across the width of the field.
This type of action isn't decoy-only though, as the Cougars throw the ball to their backs more than enough to keep defenses honest, and not just into the flat. This year they're spending more time in 20 personnel looks with offset backs, and they'll send both out on wheel routes in opposite directions trying to get at least one working against a linebacker. They'll also run both up through the A gap and then spray them out in different directions from there. This allows them to feign max protection and then slip backs to the linebacker level.
Also more than in the past, Washington State is running the ball and doing so out of two back sets in addition to single back formations. As defenses have gone to more base nickel personnel groupings with fewer and lighter bodies in the box, the Cougars have not been hesitant to run the ball into interior A and B gaps with zone blocking out of single back sets, and even will mix in lead zone and stretch zone to the perimeter out of the two back sets. Their leading rusher is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, with the two backs behind him each doing even better.
This increased running has given the team just a hint more balancing capability but its bread and butter is always going to be slinging the ball all over the yard, and usually use max protection with its backs when it wants to mix in a five step drop of the quarterback and try to get the ball down the field.
Washington State Offensive Personnel
Luke Falk (No. 4) -- Pressed into action last year against ASU following an injury to Connor Halliday, Falk had 600 yards passing on 74 attempts but four costly turnovers. Falk is making better decisions overall -- and also probably gotten a bit lucky -- and that's one of the main factors in the Cougars' success. Even though he throws it more than every quarterback in the league, Falk also has the highest completion percentage at 70.8 percent, which is a remarkable accomplishment but also reflects Washington State's style. Seven teams average more yards per catch than the Cougars in the league, with Washington State often getting the ball out quickly on short-area throws and three step drops.
Gabe Marks (No. 9) -- The Cougars will move their perimeter receivers around a good bit but the 6-foot-0, 190 pound Marks is the top target and he's more likely to align in the boundary than any of his teammates. Marks is targeted more than any receiver in the league and has the most receptions, with 63 for 800 yards. Even so, he's averaging a good 12.7 per catch and has a team-high 11 touchdowns, which is also best in the league. He's fluid and reliable and fits the system well -- but to be sure, it is system-driven success. He's not as athletically gifted as a half dozen other receivers in the league ASU's already faced.
Dom Williams (No. 80) -- At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Williams is a bigger target than Marks but no less of a big play threat. In fact he's averaging more yards-per-catch, at 13.7, and has six touchdowns. The Cougars are so pass-heavy that only three players in the league, including Marks, average more catches per game than Williams' 6.0, and only three have more receiving yards. Williams is more apt to line up on the field side but again, the Cougars will move their receivers around quite a bit depending on matchups and formations. He's not a speed merchant, as the Cougars don't really have those types of receivers, but he's a very good playmaker.
Gerard Wicks (No. 23) -- Even though he's a big back at 6-foot-0 and 223 pounds, Wicker is versatile and skilled. He has pop behind his pads and is physical into the hole and through contact at the first level and that nets some pretty good yards after contact. He's not especially shifty but plays with a good motor and is a three down back as would be expected in such an offense. Wicks is a good max protector, which again, he needs to be, and he's a reliable receiver out of the backfield who runs pretty consistent short-area routes. He's not a downfield target though, and though he has 26 receptions, he's only averaging 4.7 per catch with a long of 17 yards and no touchdowns.
Washigton State offensive line -- The Cougars are built to throw the ball and are just average from a physicality standpoint up front even though they run the ball reasonably well. This shows up most often against bull rushers, who have had an ability to collapse the pocket around Falk. As opposed to other teams in the league, there is no clear singular glaring weakness on the line from a personnel standpoint.
ASU Defense Against Washington State
The challenge here, of course, is to get after the quarterback and force jeopardy throws and generate sacks without being exposed on the back end. ASU's had mixed success against this type of offense. It's typically given up a lot of yards but has at times offset that with enough interceptions and negative plays to not be overly harmed. Other times, such as against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl a few years ago, ASU's been really abused and looked completely out of sorts. Even last year, Falk threw for 600 yards but his four interceptions were key.
We can expect ASU will play a lot of nickel sub-package on base downs and may even do so exclusively in this game. It will be by far the most nickel we've seen this season, and that means arguably its best defensive player, junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso, will be off the field. ASU may go with a lot more reps than normal for nickel corner Solomon Means, sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun, and redshirt freshman pass rusher Ismael Murphy-Richardson, with one fewer heavier defensive lineman on the field.
ASU sacked Falk last year six times and the Cougars give up more sacks than any other team in the league, which again is to be expected given how much it throws the ball. How the Sun Devils' safeties hold up in coverage and whether they have blown assignments or not -- especially freshman Kareem Orr -- will largely tell the story of how ASU does. This is the type of offense ASU can give up a lot of yards to but if it keeps it out of the end zone and collects a few turnovers it probably won't matter. The big plays of 20-plus yards and/or one-play touchdowns can't happen though.
Washington State Defensive Scheme
It's been proven extremely difficult to pair a successful defense with the Air Raid offense given the openness and high scoring way in which games tend to be played, and one of the philosophical questions about how high a team's ultimate ceiling is as a result is an open subject for debate.
Even so, this is the best defense the Cougars have put on the field in the Leach era and perhaps by a wide margin. First-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who spent the last three years coaching safeties at Missouri, has his unit playing extremely hard and with a great deal of passion, and the approach has been very sound schematically.
Visibly, the Cougars resemble ASU's defense more than most teams in the Pac-12. They've transitioned to what some would consider a base 4-2-5 or nickel and use junior "linebacker" Parker Henry as a hybrid player on the field side (the wider side relative to ball placement) much in the way the Sun Devils use junior Laiu Moeakiola that same way as its Spur. Whether you consider this a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 is subject to interpretation but functionally it's ostensibly the same either way.
Washington State also uses a boundary hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in a manner similar to ASU's Devil backer position. This player will operate sometimes from a 3-point stance in a way that presents as an odd-front look, but really isn't in how the position is utilized. Just like ASU, the Cougars will shift and tweak their alignments around a lot pre-snap and use a lot of different alignments, often even shifting multiple gaps from an over to under front or vice versa.
It's not all the same though. The Cougars do flip their safeties based on ball location as ASU does but don't tend to do the same with their cornerbacks, and perhaps the biggest difference is Washington State plays way more relaxed coverage with its perimeter defensive backs than the Sun Devils. The biggest reason for this, most likely, is because they don't blitz nearly as much as ASU.
When the Cougars do bring pressure, it's almost never more than five defenders -- they didn't have a single six man blitz against Stanford last week -- and almost never involves a defensive back. Unlikely other teams in the Pac-12 that tend to only bring five man pressures and only from linebackers, however, the Cougars have more varied blitzes and use a variety of stunts and twist games to try to generate protection mistakes -- two offensive linemen on one defender. But none of their starting linebackers has a single sack and their action as part of the blitz action is usually as a decoy to get one of the down linemen free.
Where the Cougars tend to struggle is with finding the right balance between running well to the football on the perimeter as a team and over-pursuing in a way that allows a lot of clean vertical attacks on read option runs or counters, or against flow screens. Stanford was getting dominated last week, out flanked severely in the outside run game until its coaches made a great adjustment to get quarterback Kevin Hogan attacking by keeping the ball on quarterback dives and speed options off read action, with the Cougars severely overrunning plays and cut off from the ball.
Washington State Defensive Personnel
Peyton Pelluer (No. 47) -- The Cougars' version of ASU junior SAM backer Salamo Fiso, Pelluer is a little undersized but runs to the ball well and is hard nosed. Pelluer leads the team in tackles with 67, seven of which are for loss, which ranks tied for second on the team. But he has no sacks, an indication of how the Cougars don't blitz that much and when they do, tend to do it in a way that's designed for down linemen to get freed up.
Shalom Luani (No. 18) -- A boundary safety, Lunai's favorite thing to do seems to be attacking the run and he does so with a hard-charging approach that reminds of ASU senior Bandit Jordan Simone. Lunai is really passionate and closes to the football quickly even coming across the field to the flat on the field side to make plays, and he'll even push a teammate out of the way to hunt it. But he's quite overzealous at times and lacks ball awareness in the run game and will overrun the play. ASU may be able to take advantage of this with quarterback Mike Bercovici if it runs the right types of plays. Lunai is better against the pass than Simone though, with a team-high three interceptions and good instincts and closing athleticism as a coverage safety.
Jeremiah Allison (No. 8) -- A WILL/boundary linebacker, Allison is the team's most athletic stand up linebacker and is prominently involved runs and short-to-medium passes to the boundary. He's third on the team with 57 tackles including 3.5 for loss, but doesn't dot the stat sheet with a lot of the eye-catching stats.
Parker Henry (No. 29) -- A hybrid linebacker who stands only 5-foot-11, 207 pounds, not rangy, Henry is tough but lacks range and is a liability in coverage. He has five tackles for loss, mostly on wide runs into the field side, which he cleans up nicely if not reached by blockers. This is one of the more athletically limited linebackers we've seen as an ASU opponent to this point in the schedule though, and the Sun Devils would be well served to try to exploit that.
Ivan McLennan (No. 3) -- A Devil-backer boundary type player, McClennan is 6-foot-4, 233 pounds. He'll move between a 3-point and 2-point stance and the Cougars rotate at this position as well as the entire defensive line to a large degree, probably more than most other teams in the Pac-12. McClennan likes to attack the inside shoulder of offensive tackles in an effort to collapse them back onto the pocket and he's much more capable at doing that than winning on the edge as a speed rusher.
Darryl Paulo (No. 99) -- Nobody jumps off the screen more when watching Washington State film than Paulo, a 6-foot-2, 255 pound pound senior field side end. Paulo is as good as any similarly sized end in the league at setting the edge against outside runs and pocket containment of quarterbacks. He also has an explosive two-step get off that he uses to make 4i alignment attacks on passing downs against opposing offensive tackles. Like Oregon's DeForest Bucket last week but not to the same degree, Paulo will use a great motor and strength to bully his way to within arm's reach of the quarterback. He has a team-highs with 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. The Cougars may not have another NFL prospect on their starting defense but Paulo is one.
Kache Palacio (No. 40) -- On typical third down nickel situations, Palacio often comes in as a pass rusher on the boundary side of the field, and he will sometimes play on base downs as a rotational guy also. The Cougars don't have a real speed rush weapon but Palacio might be the most dynamic and he has seven tackles for loss and four sacks.
Hercules Mata'afa (No. 50) -- Another player with a high-revving motor, Mata'Afa rotates in plays inside quite a bit at tackle including sometimes even over the nose of the center despite only weighing 242 pounds. Obviously linemen who can get their hands on him will block him with a lot of success but Mata'afa is very good at getting lateral quickly and into gaps before linemen can get a leverage advantage. ASU's linemen on the interior will have to have quick hands and actively anticipate where Mata'afa wants to work. But the trade off is he can be run at.
ASU Offense Against Washington State Defense
Against Stanford last week, the Cougars took away a lot of the stretch zone and kick out type blocking that ASU used successfully when it played against Oregon. As ASU learned against the Cardinal, that's easier said than done. But the read option quarterback keeper stuff worked to counter-attack this and especially when Stanford went to speed option plays. The Cougars aren't heavy up front but play hard and balance in the run game is what enabled the Sun Devils to generate the 745 yards it achieved last week, so that has to continue, especially on the road. It may come down to how the Cougars attempt to stop the ASU running game and what ASU does strategically the adjust to that.
Washington State plays very relaxed coverage on the corners and that presents opportunities for short throws to the outside receives on hitches, curls and comebacks, but also what ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell likes to do is try to stretch those corners vertically and throw the ball on screens and swings to the flat where linebackers have to try to close to the ball. The Cougars aren't athletic at the linebacker level and that may present opportunities for senior D.J. Foster working from the backfield or junior receiver Tim White on the field side.
The way the Cougars like to use linebackers in zone underneath when rushing four or five leads to a conclusion that crossing routes and shallow digs or even running back slips through interior gaps should be part of the passing attack for ASU as well. This probably won't be a team ASU is able to pump the ball down the field due to its coverage and blitz approach, and that's frankly not even a strength for the Sun Devils this season anyway. It's going to take a commitment to drive sustainment and comfort with taking what's being given to Norvell and Bercovici for ASU to probably put enough points on the board.
In last season's game between the two seasons, ASU converted all six of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns, which is extremely rare and noteworthy. The Cougars' red zone defense hasn't been overly porous this season, but ASU's tended to only turn about 60 percent of its such trips into touchdowns. Perhaps Norvell has a good feel for the Cougars nearer the goal line, but that's going to be an interesting stat in this game.
Falk had 600 passing yards last year against ASU in Tempe and that was with Damarious Randall at field safety. This game is going to be playing in cold weather -- for warm-weather ASU -- and a hostile environment with true freshman Kareem Orr in Randall's place. The Sun Devils are getting a lot of sacks and tackles for loss but it's come at a price because they've had to bring relentless blitzes to get those results and the trade off has been a league-worst 7.9 yards per opponent reception. The Sun Devils played much better last week on offense even though it didn't translate to as many points as it should have. It'll need to have a similarly impressive game Saturday in this regard, which is very possible considering ASU's lit up the scoreboard against the Cougars under Leach. But this is a better Washington State team and one that matches up better than in the past against the Sun Devils. If Falk doesn't turn it over a few times, the Cougars probably win unless ASU has its best offensive efficiency game of the year. I don't think it all comes together and am picking the Cougars to win 44-37.