WSU has fought hard the last three games but there's only a 1-2 mark to show for it. What the players need to hang on to is the fact they have answered the proverbial bell nearly every time during that stretch. The challenge now is to turn "nearly" into "every."
For the Cougar offense, success against the Card will hinge in part on the ability to dissect the Cover 4. Historically, Stanford has been one of the best Cover 4 teams in the nation. The Cougs certainly defeated some Cover 4 looks against Cal on Saturday night. Here's a look at some of what they saw and how they responded.
Chalk Talk on Cal
Diagram 1 - 2 x 2 formation vs. Cover-4.
Diagram 2 - 2 x 2 formation vs Cover 4 “PIN/SMASH” route concept.
Diagram 3 - 2x2 formation vs Cover-4 chair route.
6 OBSERVATIONS FROM CAL
1. Pressure on the QB. The Cougs disrupted Jared Goff’s passing mechanics numerous times in the first half, including a first-quarter sack. Upon further review, it looked like Cal had a few assignment errors in their slide protection scheme. But Cal corrected their mistakes while also throwing quicker passes to take the heat off of Goff.
2. Blitz Scheme. The concept of a blitzing play is to disrupt everything about an offensive play, and the effects should be cumulative. It must also be sound against the run. Unfortunately, this was not the case on Daniel Lascos’ TD romp in the third quarter. The Cougs blitzed five players on the right side of the offensive formation. The Bears were able to pin the blitzers inside and pull a guard for the all-that-remained cornerback.
3. Kickoff Coverage. Khalfani Muhammad had returned the first five kickoffs for the Golden Bears. For some reason Trevor Davis replaced him as the deep back on the remainder of Cal’s kick returns. It would not surprise anyone if he remained the No. 1 deep ‘back after his performance in Martin Stadium. After the first 100-yard TD return, you just can’t allow him to have that second chance. Kick away from him. Bloop-kick. Squib-kick. Just don’t allow him free access to another opportunity. As defensive and special teams coordinators say, “MAKE THEM EARN IT.” This is now even more important Friday night at Stanford -- Ty Montgomery of the Cardinal is probably the most dynamic kickoff and punt returner in the Pac-12.
4. Stealing Possessions. With the amount of offensive fireworks in the Pac-12, anytime you can steal a possession it’s a huge advantage. This is exactly what WSU did on the brilliantly executed on-side kickoff vs. Cal. Another way is to go for it on fourth down. The Cougs have shown no fear all season here (and since Mike Leach arrived at WSU.) This is just becoming more and more a part of their offense. I love the risk-reward factor involved with this philosophy: it shows both player and staff confidence in the offense. Other ways: a fake punt. And you’re seeing more QBs read the defense on fourth down and either punt or run a play. Can Connor Halliday kick a football? We know he can run a successful play on fourth down. A subliminal stealing of a possession is to cut down on penalties. One flag doesn’t on its own stand out. But when added up, 12 penalties vs. Cal were a killer. Third-and-three is easier to call than third-and-eight. Cal gained an additional 77 yards when factoring in the penalties.
5. The Running Game. The Cougs’ run game is on the rise and it must continue to get better every week to take just a little pressure off Halliday. Gerard Wicks had enough carries to feel the flow of the game and the blocking schemes. It does take some valuable practice time to continue to improve but it’s probably well worth it with six games remaining. I was a bit surprised that the Cougs had more rushing attempts and yards than the Bears, since the Bears ran the ball very well against Colorado and coming in had more runs than passes on the season.
6. The Fireworks. WSU-Cal featured the most entertaining game you could ever want from two outstanding QBs. And no turnovers might be the most impressive stat of them all. Coug receiver Vince Mayle was spectacular. The play of WSU’s offensive line (and Cal’s as well) was extremely solid. The unheralded boys in the trenches should be commended on a job well done.
6 Challenges WSU faces at Stanford
1. Simulating the Card. The Coug defense will no doubt practice this week against offensive formations that use fullbacks, multiple tight ends and extra linemen. This is a challenge since the Cougs have only one tight end listed on the roster in Nick Berg, a 6-5, 253-pound freshman -- and zero fullbacks. Simulating power formations, personnel and the actual plays that are being run could be an advantage to Stanford.
2. Playing in the Box. I’ve written about it from an offensive viewpoint but The Box works both ways. WSU must load The Box defensively and match Stanford’s mass. This will be totally different from the game plans the Cougs have implemented of late against wide-open offenses. It means more face-to-face physical battles. It also means this will be a fun chess match to watch.
3. Defending Play-Action. This will also be a major challenge for the Cougs. They don’t see a lot of play action in their other Pac-12 opponents, or in practice. They saw some in the opener against Rutgers, and that was a long time ago.
4. Blitz Packages. WSU now has to scheme, and execute, blitz packages that can get to the QB with added tight ends and closed formations.
5. A Different QB. Kevin Hogan isn’t Marcus Mariota. And his style is totally different than a Jared Goff's or Travis Wilson's. He is very talented in a different way, and maybe the best field general-type in the Pac-12. When Stanford needs a big play, when they need a big third-down conversion, look for Hogan to be the guy tasked with making it. He has scored three very important rushing TDs this season. The Cougs can’t allow him to win the game for Stanford.
6. Stanford Defense. The Cardinal is only allowing 8.6 points per game, which is No. 1 in the nation. The Cougs are averaging 38 points per game. Something has to give. So which one of these numbers will move? The Cardinal defense is legit, probably the best tackling team the Cougs have faced. Assignment football becomes paramount in this match up. Can WSU’s o-line give Halliday enough time? Will Halliday get rid of the ball quicker than normal? Will Halliday and Leach go to the run more?
Final Thoughts on the Cardinal
Power football can be recognized by both the types of players on the field and the types of formations. Mass is the common denominator. As coaches say, “Mass kicks ass.” Stanford is one of the few teams remaining in the Pac-12 that truly prides itself on being a power football team. They still rely on physics and mass in both their offense and defensive schemes. Power football is predicated on “moving” your opponent out of the space that he is currently occupying. There are a lot of ways to go about countering that but the end goal is the same: WSU must not be moved.
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.