CF.C Coach's Chalkboard with Robin Pflugrad

HOW ABOUT THAT Cougar comeback win on the road at Utah? So let’s talk Mike Breske and the Coug D, and why watching many of the great QBs is so often … frustrating. And then let’s go in-depth on Air Raid denizens Mike Leach and Cal’s Sonny Dykes and diagram up some mesh routes, delving into some subtle differences in the way Leach runs them compared to Dykes.

Oh, Ye of Little Faith

Was there ever any doubt, Cougar Nation? Down by the score of 21-0 to Utah, in the bat of the proverbial eye. And Utah looked like they would score again before halftime.

Maybe the Cougs hadn’t shown enough to the Cougar Nation to make them believe they could come back and win the game. I received a few critical phone calls and text messages at halftime. My response: Please put down all sharp objects! I long ago realized that regardless of the score, there is more than enough time remaining when you’re trailing at the half.

However, I was also disappointed in some things -- the punt return coverage against Utah’s talented returner Kaelin Clay left a lot to be desired with lane integrity going out the window. The Cougs’ early offensive drive that stalled on the six-yard line with no points to show for it. And of course, both interceptions were frustrating to watch. The one thing I felt pretty good about, however, was the play of the Cougar defense.

Kudos to Coach Breske and Co.

The WSU defense looked like they were really having a lot of fun on Saturday. The defensive line was playing with low pad level and they just looked faster than in previous games.

I’m sure at the beginning of last week when Mike Breske was formulating his defensive scheme, No. 6 -- Utah’s big playmaker, Dres Anderson showed up on film over and over again. Breske’s plan and the play of Charleston White and his teammates totally took Anderson out of the game. Anderson had ZERO catches. Any time you can take out a team’s No. 1 playmaker you will have an opportunity for success, even if you go down 21-0.

Utah attempted to rely on Clay as the game progressed – and WSU forced him into a turnover with Utah moving the ball into Cougar territory.

Overall, tackling looked much better and with the exception of one long run the Cougs were solid most of the game. There seemed to be better communication in the secondary than in previous weeks. Obviously this paid dividends in stopping Anderson. The pass rush really seemed to bother Utah’s JR. QB Travis Wilson, who never seemed to get untracked.

Halliday, Halliday, Heartbreaker, Touchdown Maker

Personally, I really enjoy watching Connor Halliday play. Sure, at times he can be frustrating. But a high percentage of really good quarterbacks are frustrating. That’s just a product of the position itself. It is extremely difficult to be a top-notch Pac-12 quarterback. And it’s worth noting in the Cougar offense you have to first take a shotgun snap from center, then immediately get your eyes downfield and go through your progressive reads in the passing game.

You have five lineman protecting you and occasionally one small running back. There is no max protection of one, two or three tight ends, or a pass-blocking fullback. You must have complete trust in your offensive lineman and be able to throw quickly on blitz situations. You have to realize you are going to get hit on a lot of plays – more than the TV ever shows because TV just follows the ball. In the Leach, and Dykes, offense the QB position is in a high risk, high reward situation. I believe as the season progresses Halliday will continue to be a touchdown maker.

Mesh Routes

The Mesh Route is a concept in which two or more players will cross by each other on the way to their individual pass pattern. This route concept can be tweaked to fit your personnel or even changed from week to week to defeat specific defensive alignments. Both Cal and WSU do a tremendous job of running this concept with a few subtle differences.

Cal will run it out of multiple running back formations, and you’ll also see it as the lead option off the run (which can become a pass, regardless of whether the o-line is blocking as inside or outside zone.) The QB can pull it back and throw based on what he sees or he can hand off, or keep and run thereby giving the QB both play action possibilities and a triple option. WSU, meanwhile, at the snap, has already determined if they’re going to pass it or run it.

Mesh Route vs. Man-to-Man coverage:

The key here against man coverage is to cross extremely close to your own player. This is where the term “Mesh” originated. In coaching this concept I’ve used the term, “feel the wind of the shoulder” as you cross by your teammate because it doesn’t allow a defensive player to slip in between the offensive players to attack the football. Occasionally, an offensive player might even slightly brush a defensive player, the key is to keep moving and find green grass horizontally across the field.

What happens most often is the defensive players will bump into themselves or bow over the top of each other creating positive separation for the offensive player. These crossing routes are fairly shallow so the QB can get the ball off in a hurry. This also creates a great concept to defeat blitzing packages. Additionally, another receiver is crossing the field at mid-level depth to take advantage of an open area vacated by the underneath defenders playing the crossing routes.

Mesh Route vs Zone coverage:

In zone coverages, there will be areas or holes in which to take advantage. The individual offensive pass patterns do not change. There is still a crossing concept. The difference is the receiver must sit down in the holes that are given up by the zone coverages. The throw by the QB does change. Instead of throwing to a moving target, he now must throw accurately to the receivers sitting in the holes.

Diagram 1. 3 x 1 formation

Mesh occurs between the highlighted inside receiver and the backside receiver. This is vs. a two-safety, man-underneath coverage. The M linebacker has the RB man-for-man. He could actually bump his own man, the C on the right side on the way to covering the RB on the wheel route. The C and the S now must also avoid each other while covering their respective receivers. The middle receiver has the inside Dig route, all he has to do is beat the N at the breaking point and run away from him. There is no undercover since they are chasing their receivers.

Diagram 2.

Same formation and play, but against a 3-Deep Zone. Now the crossing receivers look for holes to sit in. The back side receiver on the right will sit between the S and the M. The inside receiver will sit approximately where the W originally lined up. The W has to widen to cover the flat, and has to be concerned with the RB. If the C on the right side is bailing to cover deep one-third of the field, then the RB can stop and sit out wide. The middle receiver now can sit in the hole between the S and the M and underneath the F. All receivers now must get their numbers turned toward the QB to communicate that they are sitting down in the hole.

Diagram 3.

This is a form of the Mesh concept used by Cal last week in their big win over Colorado. This play netted the Bears 41 yards on a pass to RB Khalfani Muhammad (No. 29) who had ” Meshed” with the Y (tight end). (Go ahead and put on your defensive coordinator hat and try to scheme against this play, because it’s a tough one. If you run a zone defense and the receiver sits down in the correct spot, they’re wide open. If you run man defense and you get rubbed off like Colorado did, it’s a 41-yard pass play.) As you can imagine, there are many ways in which to run the Mesh concept utilizing many different players and formations.

Air Raid vs Bear Raid

In the upcoming Saturday night battle, a great subplot is brewing – the subtle differences in the WSU and Cal offenses.

To truly understand the similarities and the differences to these high powered offenses we need to rewind a bit. The biggest common denominator Leach and Dykes share is Hal Mumme, who has been credited as the innovator of the Air Raid offense. Two of Mumme’s assistants have been credited with assisting the growth and development of the offense -- Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes.

But part of the reason their systems do have subtle differences are due to personnel. Take a quick look at the WSU legends poster. Now, what worked well for Jack Thompson would probably need to be tweaked for the development of a Drew Bledsoe or a Ryan Leaf. Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Jason Gesser and Alex Brink could have all been successful in the Air Raid – with the coaches for each QB tweaking things due to slightly different skill sets.

This brings me back to Dykes and Arizona. He inherited a tight end by the name of Rob Gronkowski. It was a fairly simple formula, add this talented player to the Air Raid system and get him the ball! And that he did. I remember coaching for Oregon against Arizona in ‘08. It seemed as if Gronkowski caught 25 passes that day. He ran right over our two safeties and two corners, all four of whom went on to play in the NFL. That was a great example of tweaking the offense to the personnel.

California does not list a tight end on their roster, however they will use Stephen Anderson (No. 89) in a tight end role. He was a key in their win over Colorado. Cal also has three fullbacks listed on their roster. These are some of the ways in which the Air Raid will differ from the Bear Raid on Saturday. Different tweaks, in a similar offense.

Final Thoughts

• The Teacher vs The Student. Leach vs Dykes. It will be fascinating to me to see how these two offensive gurus will actually defend one another, which means d-coordinators Breske and Art Kaufman will also be on center stage.

• Air Raid vs Bear Raid. The Bear Raid has rushed for 689 yards at 4.2 per carry. Air Raid has rushed for 261 yards at 2.7 per carry. WSU has to concern themselves with 2 different type running backs on Saturday -- Lasco (6-0, 210) and Muhammad (5-7, 170).

• The Cougs must be aware of Anderson, No. 89. He will be utilized in many different ways come Saturday.

• Cal QB Jared Goff is gaining more and more confidence as the season progresses. Cougs must get some heat on him early and often, and ideally some sacks in the first half.

• Cougs must continue to run slant routes to outside receivers. WR Nelson Spruce from Colorado was money on the slant last Saturday against Cal and paid high-yielding dividends for the Buffs.

• When Cal lines up and shows blitz, they didn’t bluff, they blitzed. WSU needs to have a good plan for this, maybe their Mesh.

• Cougs must continue to make strides in the kicking game. The punt coverage and punt return units will again be tested by Cal.

The California Golden Bears are an entertaining, improving football team who finally won their first conference game in 15 tries. Perhaps more importantly, they bounced back with a win after a devastating loss (Hail Mary) the week before to Arizona when they gave up 36 fourth quarter points. WSU will need to come ready to play.

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, a college football analyst for Channel 3 KTVX (CBS). 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.

Cougfan Top Stories