CF.C Coach's Chalkboard with Robin Pflugrad

I'VE BEEN FORTUNATE enough to coach in five Apple Cups. Alas, my record is 2-3. We were able to win 30 games in three years (11-game schedule) at WSU but we lost all three games to the Dawgs during that time. The triple overtime '02 game in Pullman still makes my blood boil (wish we would have had video review back then.) But one of my fondest Apple Cup memories was our win in 2005.

Trandon Harvey scored on a bubble screen in the last seconds, helped by a tremendous block from receiver Greg Prater, as the Cougs beat the Dawgs 26-22 in Seattle.

This year’s Apple Cup is in Pullman, and here are six reasons CougFans should be optimistic Washington State will come out with a win.

1. Both the WSU offensive and defensive lines continue to improve. The offensive line will have their hands full with the likes of Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha. But if the Cougs can just “sustain” throughout the majority of the first 45 minutes on the game clock, I believe they will be sitting pretty entering the fourth quarter.

2. After last week’s ASU game, I’m comfortable in saying this as we enter Week 12: the receiving corps for the Cougs can’t be stopped. River Cracraft should be even healthier and Vince Mayle continues to play like a Bilitnekoff Award winner. I believe the Cougar WR’s vs Washington’s secondary highly favors the guys from the Palouse.

3. Washington has some of the best individual players in the country, but I like how the Cougs are playing as a team. Every year, you see teams who have a lot of really talented players hyped up and talked about endlessly. And a lot of times those teams have fallen off the radar soon after. The Cougs are really playing as a team unit right now, and those teams cause the opponent endless worries.

4. The Cougs have never shown an ounce of giving up. There have been multiple times when they could have thrown in the towel. They never have. It was anyone’s game headed into the fourth quarter at ASU but minutes later, the game was out of reach. But WSU fought to the very end, scoring in the last seconds AND executing a perfect onside kick.

5. I like what Luke Falk can bring to this game. He seems mature beyond his years, last week’s interceptions notwithstanding. His ability to extend plays will be important against a very capable Husky defensive front.

6. Another nod in the Cougars' direction: the game is being played on the Palouse. This could be a slight advantage. A lot of the Husky faithful will not make the trek over the mountains. It’s going to be bitterly cold and the students may not get back in time from break. But I still think it will be a noisy evening in favor of WSU.

I have a ton of respect for Chris Peterson and his body of work. I have known him for many years and consider him a friend in the profession. No one can guarantee future success, but he is certainly capable of turning around the Husky program. And that’s just one more reason why the 107th Apple Cup battle is very important to Washington State. A win by the Cougs could mean a lot for momentum in the both the short- and long-term.

Chalk Talk

Below are a few diagrams from the WSU-ASU game that shed some light on a few concepts and strategies which should also come into play in the Apple Cup.

Diag. 1 QB sneak by Falk

This was third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. WSU had run a couple of plays and knew how the Devils would most likely line up. The Cougs came out with 20-personnel in a right formation (to the Y). The Devils showed outside pressure by the W, S and SS. The M was playing four-yards off the ball. There is a large gap between the N and the T on the line of scrimmage, because the offensive line splits are fairly wide even on the one-yard line. The QB sneak is an excellent call in this situation due to the simple concept of spacing. This, along with the size of Falk is great call. I believe Leach signaled in two plays to Falk, one of them being the sneak, and Falk went to it when he saw the defensive alignment. That WSU really hadn’t done that all year made it a heck of a call. And coming on third down, how would ASU ever have guessed it?

Diag. 2 Safety read concept

The Cougs were in a two-shell coverage and bringing the M and W. The Devils ran crossing routes by their two inside receivers and the X runs a home run post. The concept here is to read the “S” safety. If the S comes up to take the R crosser, then the QB knows he has a shot at the home run post by X. If the S plays deep to help on the X, then the QB will look to the R in the newly open voided area. What helped this play was the excellent release by ASU’s X. He got off the line of scrimmage freely and beat WSU’s corner for a 42-yard TD.

Diag. 3 Play-action pass beating safety rotation

This was a good call by ASU on first-and-10, usually a run call for them. With the motion across the formation by the H, WSU rotates from a four-across quarters coverage to three-deep invert coverage. The safety drops down close to the box to defend the run and the other safety rotates to the middle of the field. As he rotates, he sees a pass developing and he jumps Y on the crosser – and he has to take the Y because the M and B are blitzing and not in coverage. This opens up the Z on the deep crossing route for a 67-yard gain.

More Apple Cup Thoughts

It sometimes becomes too easy to point to WSU’s 32-68-6 series record as a predictor of what’s to come. Football has changed so much decade-to-decade, even year-to-year in some cases. And if you look at the last 10 games, you’ll see the series is tied 5-5.

And even if you did want to spend time analyzing the overall series mark, a case can be made that Washington has actually underachieved. With the population and recruiting base, major airport, athletic facilities, booster dollars all leaning heavy in favor of the purple and gold for so many years, they should have been able to achieve even greater success than they have.

For many years, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State all had similar facilities and budgets, and they competed for second place among the four Northwest schools in the conference. The arrival of NIKE dollars is a relatively recent one, but it has enabled Oregon to supplant the mighty Huskies and turn them into a program only slightly above mediocre.

I believe the Cougars have competed as well as they have over the years because of what’s inside. They’re a very tough band of brothers over in Pullman. Even in some of the losses, many of the scores have been closer than any of the “experts” predicted. No matter the historical data, the Huskies always know they’re in for a true fight.

When coaching a rivalry game, I wholeheartedly believe in educating the players on the importance of the game. Some coaches and staffs don’t want to put added pressure on the players during this week’s game preparation. But I totally disagree with that – because this performance under pressure will pay dividends for the players later in life.

There is a caveat. I have been involved in an Apple Cup in which several players were so excited and jacked up they lost focus of the reason they were there. They committed multiple assignment errors, even turnovers, because they were not playing in their comfort zone.

I have also been in a rivalry game in which players lost control of their emotions and committed uncharacteristic personal fouls. One of our players committed such a blatant personal foul both benches cleared and the riot squad had to be called in with their shields and clubs. It was actually quite frightening for everyone on hand and it left me with a very uneasy feeling.

These are important games. But the players should never lose sight of two things: true sportsmanship and the concept of having a lot of fun.

ASU rewind

The Cougar defense had four sacks on ASU senior QB Taylor Kelly before noontime. With a 21-7 lead and just under five minutes to play in the first half the Cougars seemed to control their destiny. The WSU defense was stopping the Sun Devil offense cold, with six three-and-outs in their first seven possessions.

I also felt that the Coug offense made a statement play during their second series -- Luke Falk’s beautiful vertical pass to Vince Mayle for a 45-yard gain. The blitz-happy Sun Devils brought an all-out blitz but the Cougar o-line stood firm and Mayle beat the ASU corner in man-to-man press coverage.

After that, the Devils ran a cover-two shell and did not blitz through at least the remainder of the drive. As discussed in last week’s article, Arizona State and Todd Graham’s defensive philosophy is to BLITZ, BLITZ, and BLITZ some more and no matter what. WSU changed that philosophy.

With a two-shell safety look, both safeties play at least 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. This should do three things: help the run game, help the QB see the open zones in the passing attack and help the offensive line by only having a four man rush.

Mike Leach seemed to see the same thing I did and called two short passes and two runs. But one of the runs lost 3 yards and an incomplete pass stalled the drive.

In the coaching chess game, this was an important series. Coach Graham probably thought a redshirt freshman QB making his first start would struggle throwing out of his own end zone with a blitz in his face. Kudos to the Cougs for instead at least flipping the field.

On the reverse side Coach Leach probably felt the Cougs would get positive yards on the run because of how ASU was lined up. The issue then becomes sustainability. Can the Cougs continue to beat blitz situations from the Devils or will the Devils be able to tweak their blitz and get home against Falk.

It was a tale of two halves. As well as the Coug defense played in the first half, the Sun Devil defense seemed to take a page out of their opponent’s defensive playbook in the second half.

The sacks the Cougars made in the first quarter were made by the Devils in the second half. Those sacks changed the momentum of the game and fueled some of the turnovers. The result was a big ol’ Five for Five -- five TDs off five turnovers. ASU had zero turnovers and only four penalties. It was too much to overcome, and left the Cougars believing they in large part beat themselves.

Falk and the WSU defense must take an education from this, not dwell on it but learn from it, and then ensure those same lapses aren’t repeated on Saturday.

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.

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