CF.C Coach's Chalkboard with Robin Pflugrad

THE COUGS GOT out and ran a bit this last Saturday. Will they do the same against Oregon? First, it’s important to understand how the Cougars were able to run the football against Portland State. What I saw from my living room couch was the basic football read concept of how many defenders are in “The Box.” Here are some diagrams that help to really illustrate it all ...

The Box Theory:

Count the defensive players that are lined up between the two offensive tackles. The formula: Six defenders in the box = Throw the football outside of the box. Five defenders in the box = Run the football.
In the latter, you have five offensive linemen to block all box players so you have a hat on a hat -- an offensive advantage. This is why sometimes you will see a QB audible in or out of a better play, because of the “Box Count.”

DIAGRAM No1: 3 x 1 Offensive Formation, Ball on Left Hash

Corners responsibilities (C) are to deny the quick hitch route, slow down vertical release by WR. “W” responsible for denying quick slant by X (a Coug favorite), plays pass-first then looks for run. “M” has wide-side field responsibility, he’s looking for underneath crossing routes then looks for run. The “S” has short passing game responsibility – a major emphasis on Bubble Screens and Crossers. “FS” responsible for deep half of the field, left hash to boundary, vertical by X, deep crossers by field WR’s. Run “SS” responsible for deep half, right hash to boundary, verticals by field WR’s, then looks for run. “DL” (E,N,T,E) responsible for pass rush, gap control in run game.

DIAGRAM No2: Draw in “The Box” then Count the Players (3 x 1, left hash)

Portland State put the “W” and “M” just slightly outside the box for pass-game responsibilities. They also lined the right DE on an outside shade of the offensive right tackle (by alignment he is ½ in box). Count the players in the box: 3½ D-Linemen, 0 Linebackers, 0 Safeties = 3½ TOTAL. A 3½ = RUN THE BALL! Heck, it’s even better than a hat on a hat. (Obviously the “W”, “M” and “FS” will eventually show up in the box, but against WSU, PSU played pass first.)

As I have mentioned, this was smart by the Vikings based on how Nevada defended the Cougs. And it was also smart of WSU to take advantage of this alignment. Truly a football chess match.

DIAGRAM No3: 2 x 2 Offensive Formation, Ball on Left-Middle Hash

There are now two slots or inside receivers lined up on both sides of the field. If the ball is left-middle, then the “W” will have to widen out even further to help in pass coverage. If he doesn’t widen, then the “C” is left alone with two receivers in his area. Now the “M” is really the only player who can fall back into The Box to help stop the run.

DIAGRAM No4: Two RBs in the Backfield

The Cougs occasionally incorporate two RBs in the backfield. Against PSU this was a great way to run the football because the Vikings kept the “W” and “M” slightly outside The Box for pass- coverage purposes. With two backs in the backfield, you bring in an extra blocker to help double team a D-lineman, or to ensure “W” and “M” stay out of The Box by blocking them.

Put yourself in the shoes of the offensive coordinator or the QB. If “W” comes back into the box, throw the slant route to X. Put your largest, most physical receiver at X, creating a mismatch with a smaller corner. If “W” widens to help with slant route, run the ball where he vacates!

And so THE question now becomes: What will Oregon do? Knowing Don Pellum, Oregon’s new defensive coordinator, he will have a plan or two up his sleeve. It is a fact that he has a veteran secondary loaded with speed and athleticism. Let this week’s chess match begin!

No Place Like Home!

From the comfortable confines of my living room it looked like the finishing touches to Martin Stadium are absolutely spectacular. What a great venue to host a college football game. Compliments to all those involved over the past several years. The transformation, from the new press box and suites to the incredible Football Operations Building are truly amazing. I believe the Cougar Nation should take great pride in their new stadium and each and every game should be a sellout.

Simply put, the Martin stadium transformation could make Pullman the most challenging place to get a road win in all of the Pac-12. Yes, there are many challenging places to get a road win, including Autzen. However, when you add up traveling to and from Pullman, possible weather conditions, the rowdiest student section in all of the conference backed up by a standing-room-only attitude, this formula could lead to disaster for visiting teams.

From a coaching standpoint, the communication struggles a visiting team will face has to get you excited. Communication issues often lead to assignment errors. Assignment errors often lead to turnovers. Turnovers allow your offense to put points on the board while keeping the opposing offense off the field (very, very important this weekend, facing the Ducks). Not to mention having to use wasted timeouts due to communication difficulties. This is what a home-field advantage is all about! I envision Martin Stadium becoming a more intimate version of CenturyLink during a Seahawk home game.

We’ll find out more this Saturday, with a packed house and Oregon coming to town.

The Oregon Story, Then and Now

The success of the Oregon football program started way before Phil Knight became fully invested in 1996. In my opinion, the hiring of Rich Brooks in 1977 was crucial to the success of the football program. When you think of Oregon football, you think offense, but Coach Brooks was a tough-minded defensive coach. At that point in time it was probably exactly what the Ducks needed.

Although Coach Brooks' overall win-loss record (91-109-4) isn’t stellar by today’s standards, he brought continuity to a hungry university and football program. The important part of the story is that he was NOT fired. Today, he probably would have been, with four of his first six campaigns resulting in two-win seasons. But back then, what Rich’s staying allowed the Ducks to do was create a harmony in their program that carried over into other areas, such as recruiting.

In 1989, Brooks took Oregon to their first bowl game since 1963. He followed that up with two more bowl games in three years, including the Rose. Since Brooks, the Ducks have hired from within their own program every chance that they could. Yes, having Phil Knight and company come on board in 1996 has obviously helped the program, and greatly so, grow to where it is today.

And this brings us to the Ducks of today. After Week Three they look to be the front runner for Pac-12 title. They are extremely fast and talented. They have matched an offensive and defensive philosophy that showcases speed. Marcus Mariota should be the front runner for the Heisman at this point in the season. But none of this means they are unbeatable this Saturday in Pullman.

Keys to WSU Beating the Ducks:

1. Make them uncomfortable. Historically (except the last few games). the Cougars have played well against the Ducks at home. With the new Martin Stadium, the fans should make this an unfriendly environment. The Seahawks call it the 12th man. The Cougars need to call it the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th man. Everybody wearing crimson can be involved in the victory.

2. The Ducks are young in a few areas -- take advantage. Yes, they are fast and talented but they have not played away from the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium yet. For some of them, they must travel for the first time in their collegiate career. Make them understand what it is like to play in Pullman.

3. Run the football, utilize the RBs. The Ducks have shown to be somewhat susceptible against the run. Their first three opponents all ran the ball in different ways, which should be an advantage to the Cougars. The Ducks must guess how the Cougs will attack on the ground, which will help the WSU passing game.

4. Continue to run the fly sweep. It wasn’t a big gainer vs. PSU but it is a statement run. It forces the defense to defend horizontally, which is different than an inside zone or draw. The Ducks have struggled defending this play against Oregon State on more than one occasion. Again, make a statement.

5. Be aggressive on fourth down. Cougar offense should go for it (in the first half) on fourth-down-and-three or less any time they are remotely near the 50-yard line in my view I understand the risk/reward in this scenario. However, the Ducks will probably score more than a few points. Want to win this game? The Cougs will have to take chances in order to do so. The success on fourth-and-short will be in direct correlation to point No. 3.

6. The Cougs are a different team -- let ‘em know about it early. WSU is totally different than South Dakota, Michigan State and Wyoming. As a coach, I wholeheartedly believe showing the opponent something new is advantageous. The Cougs have more offensive speed and weapons than the Ducks’ previous three opponents. And the Cougs must play their style and score points, forcing the Ducks to match every single possession.

7. Coug Nation showing up with overwhelming support. A loud home crowd can so often means more momentum shifts, and that they last longer.

Portland State: Congratulations

Yes, congratulations are in order for the PSU team and coaching staff. Aside from the first play of the game, the Cougar defense did an outstanding job of shutting down Portland State’s athletic Paris Penn. This was one of my keys to victory, as was not allowing Viking RB Shaquille Richard to get off to a fast start. Richard did have some quality runs, but the Cougs’ Cyrus Coen forced a timely fumble in the red zone, causing a major shift in momentum.

Mike Breske and the Cougar defensive staff had a solid plan. When the Vikings scored twice in the early third quarter they didn’t panic. Instead, they responded by playing well the remainder of the game.

On offense it was important to get the RB’s more involved in the game plan. As I had mentioned, Nevada’s defensive umbrella plan was solid against the pass but somewhat susceptible against the run. Portland State employed a similar look, one that was also susceptible to the run. Still, it was a smart move by Nigel Burton. They didn’t execute it as well as did Nevada, but their plan was sound: Make the Cougs do something they haven’t done, get the RB’s the football. And for WSU, doing so again against the Ducks could prove highly beneficial.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robin Pflugrad has spent 29 years as a college football coach, and as head coach at Montana was a finalist for the 2011 Eddie Robinson Award as the nation's top FCS coach. From 2001-05 he was an assistant at Washington State, where he served as tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach. He was an assistant at Arizona State prior to coming to WSU and at Oregon after leaving WSU. He is a graduate of, and former assistant coach at, Portland State. Former WSU head coach and longtime d-coordinator Bill Doba referred to Pflugrad as “The Bulldog” while at WSU, owing to Pflugrad’s attention to detail and passion for recruiting. He and wife Marlene reside in Phoenix, where he is a football consultant for a number of college programs and dabbles in broadcasting. His daughter Amanda works in the New York Jets’ online media department while son Aaron enters his second season as an offensive graduate assistant at ASU.

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