CF.C Coach's Chalkboard with Robin Pflugrad

WASHINGTON STATE’s opponent this week, Utah, is coming off one of the biggest wins in school history, a 26-10 drubbing of Michigan in the Big House. True, Michigan doesn’t seem to really be Michigan this year. However, a big win on the road is impressive. And we start this week’s chalkboard with four thoughts on WSU-Utah.

1. Travis Wilson is an outstanding quarterback with the third-best pass- efficiency rating in college football. He is a tough, physical-type QB. He can take a hit or two and also deliver one or two. He is much faster than he looks and has had several long runs in his career. WSU needs to have a have a plan for him on the ground.

2. Wide receiver Dres Anderson is the real deal. He is averaging more than 19 yards per catch. But it’s hard to place too much attention on him due to the emergence of fellow receiver Kenneth Scott.

3. Utah's special teams will probably be the best such unit the Cougs will have seen to date. Possibly the most explosive returner in the Pac-12 is Kaelin Clay. The Cougs must have a plan for him every time he touches the ball; directional kicking could be required here.

4. The Ute defense is playing very well. It's a highly spirited group led by one of the better young d-coordinators out West in Kalani Sitake. The chess match between he and Mike Leach should be downright fascinating to watch.

Positive, Fair and Extremely Demanding

br> Any win on Saturday begins at the start of the week. In regard to the rest of the Cougars’ 2014 football season, the biggest question is quite simple: How will Coach Mike Leach utilize the Oregon game moving forward?

There were probably more crimson positives from that game than the previous three games combined. However, the stakes were so much higher, and that multiplied the outcome of negative plays and assignment errors. As a head coach you must continue to point to these positives as you move forward. Each and every microscopic part of your program has to “buy in” to all the positive things that happened on Saturday.

For any head coach, the third season if when the program truly becomes yours. And that’s because 85-100 percent of the players in the program after Year Three are players you have recruited. They are hand-selected by you and your staff to match your program and scheme -- the Air Raid or a pressure, blitzing defense. This brings us right back to the Oregon game.

Dwelling on and selling the positive has to be the main focus of this week’s message to the team. This message must permeate throughout the entire new football complex, to WSU’s recruiting targets, through the student body and campus, all the way out to the entire Cougar Nation.

An example of this could be as simple as showing Connor Halliday’s stats to an up-and-coming Class of 2016 quarterback (the Cougs already have their ’15 QB in Tyler Hilinski but it sure wouldn’t hurt to reinforce it to him as well.)

Against a quality conference opponent like Oregon. Halliday threw 63 passes with 68 percent accuracy for 436 yards and 4 TDs. And this, everyone needs to understand, is where the dividends are starting to pay off and will only increase in the seasons to come.

There is one crucial by-product to this: Utah now becomes a very important MUST WIN for the Cougar program. And the flip side of the coin is, there has to be some HARD coaching taking place this week in Pullman. There are some areas of concern that simply have to be cleaned up. Among them:

• Understanding of the situation by the return team and the punt returner. It sure would have been nice to get the ball at mid-field with 53 ticks left in the half. WSU looked primed to go into halftime with the lead until that special teams miscue.

• The false start by the left tackle on the first drive of the second quarter created a third-and-15 situation. The Cougs had great field position and had just stopped the Ducks, a huge momentum swing was possible. But after that penalty, it even felt as if the crowd quieted down. The result was a punt and the Ducks tied the game in three plays.

• The fumble with 6:34 in the third quarter was a killer. The game was still knotted at 21 and WSU was driving. The Ducks had just missed a field goal. The Cougs were on a nine-play drive. It was first-and-10 from the 38-yard line of the Ducks but carrying the ball incorrectly at any point on the field leads to bad things. And Oregon scored a touchdown off of this turnover and WSU never led the rest of the way.

• With the game tied at 31, the Cougs got an unnecessary roughness penalty AFTER an 18-yard completion; in other words, a 33-yard play for the Ducks. Five plays later they score the winning touchdown.

So what’s the big reveal of all this? These issues were entirely self-inflicted. As a coach, the message has to be that these mistakes are correctable but more importantly, they are unacceptable. In today’s football world the message that is vibrating across college campuses is this: “Winning is really hard to do, but losing is unacceptable.” But you make winning a whole helluva lot easier when you don’t beat yourselves.

Oregon was ripe

br> Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s always easy to say after the fact. But the truth is Oregon was ripe for the picking. In fact, the situation was very similar to the 2003 season when the Cougs played at Autzen.

Oregon was coming off a marque win over Michigan. The Ducks were ranked in the top 15, had made the cover of Sports Illustrated and the Cougs had to travel to Eugene.

Despite a five-hour flight delay that torpedoed chances for a walk through upon landing, the Cougs got off to a great start that day (much like this past Saturday night) and never looked back. We handed the Ducks their worst loss ever at Autzen, 55-16.

Oregon was ripe this past Saturday in that they had to go on the road to play the Cougs in Martin Stadium. They had numerous young players making their first road trip. They had two inexperienced offensive tackles playing against a Pac-12 opponent. The new and improved edition of Martin Stadium was rockin’ with excitement and noise. I believe Oregon was also ripe for the taking in that other than Mariota, they don’t seem to have as many big playmakers on offense as in years past.

Devon Allen ended up showing he is a big time player in the Duck offense but how much of that was WSU’s mental and miscommunication errors? Again, it comes back to you cannot beat yourselves.

Defensively, Oregon was ripe against the run. Oregon had shown vulnerability against FCS opponent South Dakota and again last week against Wyoming. The Cougs did some good things in the run game, but only Leach and company can answer if it was enough. As I wrote last week, I felt it was imperative that the Cougs force the Ducks to match them possession by possession. Ultimately, WSU needed to make the Ducks chase the Cougs in the fourth quarter. This almost came to fruition, with the exception of a few costly errors.

The WSU-UO Chess Game

br> • The Ducks employed an odd-man defensive front, meaning they played three defensive lineman up front and employed four linebackers or three linebackers with an additional nickel back. You can usually disguise what you are going to do (blitz) by moving the linebackers in and out, up on the line of scrimmage or bail them back away from the line. The Ducks also stood the D-linemen up in two-point stances to give the O-Line something else to be concerned with.

• In theory this scheme (three rushing, eight in coverage) is a very solid approach to defending a passing team. This makes the passing lanes tighter and provides an extra second-level defender to stop the crossing routes. This was a solid move by the Ducks. The Cougs' counter was a few more run plays. A veteran offense can usually eliminate some of the defensive disguises -- by the alignment, stance, demeanor and foot placement by the defensive players (You can do this at home as well; next game you watch on TV try and determine which defensive players are going to blitz and which ones are just bluffing). When Oregon’s defensive front three became a little tired in the second half, they tipped it by standing straight up which allowed them to be blocked.

• Countering the Oregon plan of a three man front: A simple wrinkle for the Cougars would have been an RB check down route at 7 yards over the ball. If the receivers are covered down field, look to the check-down man. If check down is covered, Halliday could run. Yes, I said Halliday could run! With the linebackers covering down field and the threat of throwing to the back, Conner could get 3-4 yards per carry, and that is all that is needed.

• The fly-sweep worked well for the Cougs. I believe they could have run it 3-4 more times. Then add simple inventory to your chess-game, such as a play-action pass and or a screen pass off of the fly-sweep action. The bonus to this is you make defenses spend precise practice time defending it.

• Mariota in the run game was exceptional. However, he could have been slowed down by spying an athletic DL, LB or Nickel back in the run game. Amazing to think that he was sacked seven times and still had 58 yards rushing.

• The Cougs did an outstanding job of DEFEATING Oregon’s All-American corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu on vertical routes. In fact, the Ducks ran much more zone coverage as the game progressed. The Ducks showed a press technique at the line of scrimmage by Ifo, however he would bail out just before the snap and play his deep one-third coverage. The Cougs could have taken advantage of this in the second half by running a simple hitch route gaining 6-8 yards on an easy completion. Take what the defense gives you.

Diagram 1. The Diagram shows how the Ducks played a 3 x 1 formation to the field in their Odd front package. Look closely how they defended the X receiver. A couple simple concepts can be applied to this formation versus this defensive look. The C will press and bail out just prior to the snap of the ball. This will create some possibilities for the X receiver to take advantage of. The SS is playing slightly down towards the box to help in crossing routes and in run support. A quick token fake to the RB will keep him from dropping back. This leaves the C vulnerable to the “skinny post” route, as diagramed.

• In Diagram 2, the C has now moved over to inside shade of X, because X has beaten him on post. Now the vulnerable route is the hitch or quick out. The QB just has to be aware of the possible coverage by W.

Diagram 3 is a simple concept for medium-to-long yardage situations. Again, just read the drop of C. The options here would be a vertical route or a stop route to get the first down.

• The move by the Cougars' offensive staff to put seven O-linemen in the game was brilliant. This created one-one matchups with the WSU receivers and Oregon’s corners (even the ESPN commentator picked up on that!) Dom Williams’ second touchdown on fourth-and-two was a result of this scheme (beating Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, again).

• One of the most intelligent moves in the chess-game by Oregon was a very simple one. Throughout the first half the Cougs did an outstanding job of pressuring Mariota. Additionally, the young tackles for the Ducks had problems communicating and were called for holding twice. The solution was simple and very effective. Oregon called plays that got the football out of Marcus’s hands as soon as possible. Quick runs, screens, quick throws and impressive runs by Mariota.

Parity in the Pac-12

br> After reviewing the WSU-Oregon game, and having watched Cal-Arizona, USC-Stanford, Utah-Michigan and ASU-Colorado, it is clear to me there is parity in the Pac-12. If Oregon can shore up a few small issues they are definitely the front runner (they don’t play ASU or USC this season). However, they showed some signs of vulnerability at WSU.

The question remains is any team is good enough that particular week to take advantage. It will be a fun weekend of Pac-12 competition, starting Thursday night when UCLA comes to visit Tempe and the Sun Devils. And it figures to be downright compelling, must-see TV when Washington State takes on Utah (6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks.)

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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