Washington State’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Washington State, in year four under Mike Leach, has finally started to come close to the offensive heights he reached in his years at Texas Tech. The Cougars have one of the most potent offenses in the Pac-12, predicated in large part on a passing attack that throws it, on average, almost 60 times per game. At 58.4 pass attempts per game, Washington State leads the country in attempts per game, and is a full 11 pass attempts ahead of the second place team (Leach’s former team, Texas Tech). Though this offense has drawn some comparisons to California and other schemes that have Air Raid elements, this is a different, purer version of that pass-happy attack.
The Cougars pass the ball on approximately 72% of all downs, which is by far the most extreme pass-to-run ratio in the nation. Per attempt, it isn’t a particularly prolific passing attack, with a fine but not excellent 7.4 yards per attempt. That said, the sheer volume of passes almost assuredly dampens that number slightly — you have to almost think of some of the passes as runs, since so many of them are underneath routes designed to get four or five yards. Where Washington State has really excelled this year is in the red zone. The Cougars score on almost 95% of red zone chances, which is second behind only Utah in the Pac-12.
The Washington State attack is led by sophomore quarterback Luke Falk (6’4, 205). Falk, like virtually ever Leach quarterback before him, is putting up some eye-popping numbers this season, completing over 70% of his passes for 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Obviously, in this offense, if the quarterback is any good he’s going to have some impressive counting statistics, but Falk has shown poise and excellent decision making this year (seven interceptions on 503 attempts this year is a shockingly good number). He has the arm to make the majority of throws on time and on target, but the majority of what he’s asked to do in this offense is dink and dunk over the middle on a variety of slants and screens, which he does with aplomb. He responds fairly well to blitzing, which is another hallmark of this offense, with so many quick passes built into the scheme that it makes it easy for quarterbacks to find the hot receiver. Teams that have been able to pressure with just four have had some success against him, but when teams feel the need to blitz, as Arizona State did last week, he can burn them (he had five touchdowns last week in addition to nearly 500 yards passing). He has taken 28 sacks this year, which is a good amount, but again, you have to take into account that he has dropped back to pass 531 times, meaning he’s only taking a sack once every 19 or so attempts.
Obviously, a huge amount of what has made this offense so prolific this year is the talented receiving corps, led by the three-headed monster of redshirt junior Gabe Marks (6’0, 190), redshirt senior Dom Williams (6’2, 200), and junior River Cracraft (6’0, 200). The three players have combined for 2196 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 171 catches. Marks is the leader and best playmaker of the group, with the ability to make tough catches in traffic and earn extra yards. Williams has some definite big play ability downfield, while Cracraft is more of the reliable possession receiver over the middle. Leach’s offense also throws to the running backs quite a bit, so you’ll also see Falk throw to running backs Keith Harrington (5’8, 180), Gerard Wicks (6’0, 224), and Jamal Morrow (5’9, 190) quite a bit (as a group, the running backs average over nine catches per game). Most often, the running backs are used as screen outlets against the pass rush, but Washington State also likes to split out the running backs into the slot, particularly Harrington, who has 37 catches this season.
Washington State’s offensive line is probably the best its been under Leach, with plenty of returning experience in the starting group, but the Cougars are dealing with a tough injury at the moment. Starting senior left tackle Joe Dahl (6’5, 310) started every game in 2013 and 2014, including all of last year at left tackle, and he has been very good protecting Falk’s blind side this year, but he missed the last game against Arizona State with a possible leg injury and is uncertain for this weekend. The Cougars have experienced talent at basically every position, though. Redshirt senior Gunnar Eklund (6’7, 305) also started every game in 2013 and 2014, including all of last year at left guard, and has also had a very solid season to date. Junior Riley Sorenson (6’4, 319) starts at center for the second year in a row — if you’ll remember, he was on UCLA’s radar during his recruitment and was pretty close to earning an offer. He’s excelled at Washington State. This might sound like a broken record, but, again, at right guard Washington State has another player with a full year of starting experience in redshirt junior Eduardo Middleton (6’5, 310). Finally, Washington State has a relatively inexperienced starter at right tackle in redshirt sophomore Cole Madison (6’5, 303), but even he started four games last season. Like I said above, the group has given up 28 sacks this season, but given the sheer number of dropbacks for Falk, it’s not that crazy of a number. For reference, Brett Hundley once took 52 sacks in a season on far fewer dropbacks. Washington State has a generally good, experienced offensive line that will present a challenge for UCLA’s pass rush.
The running game is worth talking about some. Though the Cougars don’t run it much, Wicks is a pretty decent runner who can run through contact and pick up tough yards. Harrington is a little bit more explosive, with the ability to make guys miss and get to the second level. Morrow, in very limited action, has also been able to hit a few big plays. Teams generally get very surprised when Washington State elects to run, so the Cougars can get a big play or two per game from some defensive inattention. Wicks gets the vast majority of the carries, with good reason, and in another system, he’d probably be a pretty productive back.
UCLA’s defense had probably its best game of the season last week, even if it did come against what was essentially a high school team. The Bruins shut out Oregon State, and the Beavers didn’t really threaten to score in a serious way at any point in the game. UCLA generated a great deal of pressure on Oregon State quarterback Nick Mitchell with just four pass rushers, which led to several interceptions for the Bruins.
Takkarist McKinley had a really nice game, and appears to be growing into an excellent pass rusher off the edge. He took over the game at points not only with his pass rush but also his ability to contain the edge on runs. Kenneth Clark had another very good game in a long chain of very good games, and even though his stats don’t reflect it, he was very disruptive up front.
At linebacker, Jayon Brown has really come into his own over the last few weeks as a starter. He was the best player on the field for the Bruins at times against both Colorado and Oregon State, and he has started to show almost Eric Kendricks-like instincts inside, oftentimes knifing in to make a tackle before anyone else has even recognized the play. Kenny Young, his counterpart inside, is still struggling to make the right decisions. It remains to be seen when Isaako Savaiinaea gets back from a high ankle sprain, and what that will mean for Young starting on the inside.
The story of the game, though, was the exceptional play of UCLA’s secondary. Obviously, UCLA generated a ton of turnovers, which was predicated in large part on very good play in the secondary. The cornerbacks were very good against Oregon State, and, as with Brown in the linebacker corps, UCLA has stumbled upon possibly its best cover corner in Johnny Johnson, who has been excellent in the last three weeks. Ishmael Adams and Marcus Rios have also been pretty good, for the most part, and that has helped alleviate the pressure on Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth on the back line, both of whom have struggled at times this season.
Obviously, it’s been a tough season for the Bruins on defense, but with McKinley, Brown, and Johnson emerging, UCLA is starting to look like a pretty talented defense again, and one that has the ability, at least, to hold up against some good offenses in the Pac-12.
ADVANTAGE: Washington State
We’ll give the edge to the Cougars here, but it isn’t as big of one as you might think. UCLA’s big weakness defensively is the inability to stop the run, and Washington State is about as far as you can get from a running team. The Cougars would be foolish not to at least try to run the ball in this one, but you have to imagine Leach is going to do what he does, and that’s pass the ball.
It also helps UCLA that Falk is, legitimately, no threat to run. He’s not even a Mike Bercovici level athlete, so there’s little that the Bruins need to worry about there.
The big key is defending the pass, and that’s something UCLA has done fairly well this year. The secondary has played well in recent weeks, and there aren’t any significant physical mismatches in Washington State’s receiving corps — unlike teams like Stanford or Arizona, Washington State’s receivers are mostly in the six-foot range, which is just about perfect for UCLa’s defensive backs.
We give the edge here to Washington State mostly because UCLA will need to generate pressure on the Cougars with four, and that could be a difficult task against a good Washington State offensive line. If Falk is relatively unpressured, he can absolutely dink and dunk UCLA into oblivion, and for whatever reason, we still have visions of ten-yard cushions dancing in our heads. We have to imagine UCLA will be fairly reluctant to bring extra pressure in this one, since, first, they’ve been relatively unwilling this entire year, and, second, Falk does a nice job against the blitz. That makes it imperative for McKinley and Deon Hollins to have nice games off the edge.
The big issue for us is that Washington State definitely has the ability and willingness to move the ball at five and six yard chunks down the field, and UCLA hasn’t shown the ability to disrupt that kind of attack too often this year. The willingness with which UCLA gave up five-yard gains to Colorado two weeks ago gives us some pause in making a really aggressive choice and giving the nod to UCLA’s defense in this matchup.