The defense was playing solid against a talented Beaver offense. The offense was moving the football well and capitalizing in the red zone. Then on that last WSU possession of the third quarter, the proverbial dam broke.
No matter what the miscommunication was on the fake punt, I can't believe there was even a conversation about going for it on fourth down in that situation.
CF.C'S MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK AS A Houston TEXAN IN 2008.
I am all for rolling the dice when the situation calls for it. The two attempts earlier in the game were great calls and executed perfectly by Connor Halliday. But both were also on Oregon State's side of the 50, ensuring that if they failed at least the Beavers would have to put together a long drive to score.
Up until that point WSU defense had allowed 24 points, but one of those touchdowns came off a short field following a Cougar fumble. Considering the type of offense Oregon State has displayed all year, that's about par for the course.
With the failed fake punt, Washington State gifted OSU the ball on the 27-yard line and they promptly scored but two plays later. Three quick Halliday interceptions were to follow, and the game was over. Again, the Cougar defense was forced to defend a short field against a great offense and simply couldn't hold up.
Two things in particular, one on offense and one on defense, really stood out to me in this loss:
There truly seems to be a disconnect between the play calling and Connor Halliday's decision making process.
For much of the first half he was correctly recognizing coverage and taking advantage of soft zones. He also utilized his check-down to the running back very well. However, in the three series following the blocked punt it seemed as if everything was predetermined. Now, when you're not the one pulling the trigger its hard to say definitively what should have happened but two poor decisions were telling.
On first down, just before his second interception, Halliday threw a swing pass on a check-down to Marcus Mason. Mason fumbled when he was gang tackled by four OSU defenders, leading to second-and14. The issue here is Connor had an opportunity to throw downfield for positive yardage on an out route to Gabe Marks. The Beavers were playing Cover 3, a defense where the cornerbacks cover the deep third of the field leaving that out-throw available. Halliday had hit the throw against the same coverage multiple times earlier in the game. The announcers even noticed it, gushing about "the big time throw" he made. Yet in a tight situation, he chose to just get the ball out of his hand to Mason without reading the coverage.
Also illustrative of Connor not being in sync -- the very next play. Facing long yardage in second-and14, Coach Leach called a play that had been successful in a key situation earlier in the game -- the fourth-and-eight conversion to Dom Williams in the second quarter. The route combination has the outside receiver running a post, while the inside receiver next to him runs a corner route. In the second quarter the Beavers played Cover 2, Halliday made the correct read and threw a strike to Williams on the post. But on second-and-14 in the fourth quarter -- with Oregon State in exactly the same coverage -- Halliday for some reason bypassed the open post route and threw an interception trying to force the corner route.
In an offense where the same plays are called multiple times as they are in the Air Raid, it is vital that quarterback and playcaller are on the same page. There has to be a mutual understanding of the situation -- down and distance, defensive coverages, blitz, score, etc. At times on Saturday it seemed as if Leach was calling plays expecting a certain coverage, yet Halliday was not recognizing the same thing.
As I said earlier, I believed the defense played decently considering the situation. The last 15 minutes was an aberration given the turnover and field position issues. The offense did not hold up their end of the deal in the fourth quarter. However, there was one glaring deficiency that stood out consistently throughout the game.
The WSU linebackers had a terrible time dropping into zone coverage and covering Beaver receivers. Whether it was Brandin Cooks or Connor Hamlett, Oregon State basically threw any deep crossing pattern they wanted at the Cougs.
The OSU running game has been much maligned throughout the year, yet Cougar linebackers bit on every play action fake. This opened up huge zones behind them that were exploited all night.
Leach specifically mentioned how he thought the turning point was not so much the fake punt, but the Beaver scoring drive at the end of the third quarter when they converted a third-and-10 deep in their territory. On that play, Mannion had a huge conversion to tight end Caleb Smith where Daryl Monroe overplayed the route allowing Smith to get behind him.
When a defense plays as much zone coverage as WSU does, the linebackers are expected to jam receivers so that they cannot get free releases and run downfield. If receivers are allowed to run unabated, this puts immense pressure on the secondary to cover a lot of ground. Too many times, far too many times, Beaver pass catchers released clean down the field and found open windows for Sean Mannion.
I have no visions of grandeur about this weekend in Eugene. Autzen is a difficult place to play and the Ducks are clearly one of the best teams in the country. Their overall team speed is going to be too much for WSU to handle.
However, I believe the Cougars have a chance to be competitive if the offense can put together a full 60 minutes. The Ducks are going to score....a lot. That means Washington State has to do the same.
More importantly they have to protect the football. The best thing Marcus Mariota does is not turn the ball over. This has to be the number one priority for Halliday and the WSU offense.