This was a game until the very end because Washington State made some excellent adjustments in their game plan from previous weeks, ones that put a lot of pressure on Oregon both offensively and defensively.
1) Running backs, running backs, running backs: Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the WSU running game against Oregon. The 16 carries between Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow has to be some kind of record (just kidding.....kind of) for this Washington State version of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. In all seriousness, with the 22 carries last week against Portland State I'm starting to think Leach actually likes running the ball.
From a scheme standpoint, handing the ball off from time to time helps this offense immensely. With the threat of a run game the linebackers have to wait, just for a split second, to read for the run before getting into their pass drops. But that split second is big.
As Robin Pflugrad pointed out in his CF.C column this week, for much of the game Oregon was rushing three defensive lineman and dropping eight into coverage. By all rights they should have had every passing lane covered, but we saw Connor Halliday hit a number of vertical seam throws and digs behind the linebackers. That was because the Oregon players had to respect the threat of WSU running the ball.
Also, there was more room on wide receiver screens for guys to make a play because the Duck defenders were making sure Halliday didn't hand it off when he made fakes to the running back.
In addition, Morrow and Wicks were involved in the passing game, combining for 95 yards on 8 catches. The most obvious one was a 45-yard check down that Morrow took to the Oregon 30 yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter. However, I was more impressed with the consistent use of the running back screen.
The particular version that the Cougars ran three times is referred to by some as a "BTL" or "Behind The Line." On the play, the running back runs to the flat like a pass route but remains just behind the line of scrimmage. This allows the receivers to come off the ball like a pass and but then block the defenders over the top of them.
This scheme gained positive yardage each time it was run because it gets the ball quickly in the hands of a good athlete in space and the WSU receivers block very well.
2) Red zone play calling: Not sure if everyone noticed, but the three Cougar touchdowns that came inside the 10-yard line (a point of emphasis from two weeks ago) went just like this: single receiver fade to Dom Williams, three WR concept with Ricky Galvin on a slant from the inside of the trips and another three WR concept with River Cracraft running a corner route. My favorite was the last play call.
Cracraft was the beneficiary of a great scheme that had the outside receiver run a curl route, inside receiver on a corner and the running back on a flat route. This "flood" style route puts pressure on the cornerback to decide on taking the curl or the corner, but also forces the linebacker to choose between the curl or the flat.
The Oregon defenders were fooled into completely dropping Cracraft who ended up wide open in the corner of the end zone for a huge touchdown.
3) The "4-2 Over G": Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske’s somewhat unique 3-4 defensive front utilizes the BUCK linebacker who can be used as a pass rusher or dropping into coverage. He likes to use some exotic blitzes from this front to create pressure on the quarterback. The tough part with running a lot of zone blitzes is the defense leaves large chunks of the field open. If you don't get to the quarterback then you get gashed.
What was interesting on Saturday night is that WSU got most of its pressure on Marcus Mariota using a more standard 4-2 Over G front.
This simply means instead of three down lineman and a stand-up BUCK, the Cougs had four defensive lineman with their hands in the ground. On Oregon's last two drives of the first half Mariota was sacked three times from this front.
Although the personnel is essentially the same (the BUCK usually just moves to DE), the 4-2 allows smaller pass rushers to get one-on-ones with slower offensive tackles on the outside. Think Isaac Brown and D.D. Acholonu for those who remember the great WSU defenses in ‘02 and ‘03.
Also, Washington State's two standout defensive tackles, Cooper and Pole, are much better pass rushers from the four man front from what I’ve observed. Unfortunately, we did not see much of the 4-2 front in the second half with Breske opting more for the 3-4 and zone blitz package. This opened the Cougar defense to some big play action throws and scrambles by Mariota.
As good as some of those adjustments were, there were also a few things that carried over from previous weeks and ended up being the reason Washington State lost this game.
What stayed the same:
1) Turnover margin: Much like previous weeks, the Cougars had two turnovers that directly led to touchdowns for the Ducks and a third that possibly negated points for themselves. A turnover on downs in the second quarter led to an Oregon touchdown drive. The fumbled punt return very likely took away a scoring opportunity at the end of the half. The most glaring was Morrow's fumble with seven minutes left in the third quarter on a promising drive that immediately turned into points for the Ducks. If the Cougs are going to win games like this, they must win the turnover battle. That is the difference-maker, plain and simple.
2) Defensive discipline: Former standout Washington State safety Hamza Abdullah tweeted this during the game Saturday night: "All young DBs listen up and remember this: KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR LUGGAGE!!!" This statement needs to be plastered all over that sweet new locker room in the Football Ops Building. The young Cougar secondary's eyes were horrendous throughout the game. They constantly got caught peeking in the backfield and giving up big plays downfield. If Washington State is going to continue to zone blitz teams, there has to better discipline on the back end.
3) Beating man coverage: One thing that had been kryptonite to the Air Raid offense at Washington State is 2-Man coverage. Although poor against the run, it is effective against the pass because defensive backs can play aggressive man coverage knowing they have safety help over the top. For whatever reason Oregon much of the game preferred to rush three DL and drop eight into different combinations of zone coverages. This was a mistake on their part as it gave Connor Halliday all day to throw and their eight did not challenge the WSU receivers at all. The few snaps they did play 2-Man (like the last play of the game) Oregon had success. Washington State must find an answer for this going forward as other teams, and probably starting with Utah, will certainly employ it against them.
There were a lot of great things the Cougs can take from Saturday night, but as the saying goes, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." Sitting at 1-3, the Cougs are desperately in need of a win at undefeated Utah. The last two weeks we have seen positive adjustments on both sides of the ball that have led to increased success. Now is the time for Washington State to put it together and turn that 1-3 record around.