The defensive performance we all witnessed after the first quarter was a product of one thing -- effort.
Sure, they cleaned up some of their assignments but most importantly, all 11 players on the field looked like they wanted it more than Wyoming over the final three quarters. Against Rutgers and, more tellingly vs. Portland State, the Cougar defense played incredibly tentative. At times they seemed almost scared to make a mistake. That wasn't the case over the final 45 minutes on Saturday.
Peyton Pelluer led the defensive resurgence. We finally saw the tenacity that players and coaches have raved about with the third-year sophomore. Instead of being on his heels, he was diagnosing plays and shooting his gap to make big plays in the backfield. Much the same can be said for the guys on the defensive line.
This group is going to have to carry the Cougar D throughout the season, but it didn’t seem to click for them until midway through the Rutgers game. Although run contain was an issue early against Wyoming, they were consistently getting great push and playing on the Cowboy side of the line of scrimmage for the bulk of the contest.
The Washington State defense is talented, but they're not talented enough to sit back and wait for plays to happen. They have to be an aggressive, attacking unit that can force turnovers. As the players get comfortable with new DC Alex Grinch’s system, I hope we continue to see the “hair on fire” type of play from the second half against the Cowboys.
And seeing more of second-year freshman defensive end Hercules Mata'afa in the weeks to come might be one of the best ways to accomplish that.
2) Offensive Balance
This is a relative term because the Air Raid will never have true balance between run and pass. However, as I mentioned after the game against Portland State, I really believe this group of running backs can be difference makers for the WSU offense and we saw more evidence of it on Saturday night.
Keith Harrington has been the talk of the Wyoming game but Gerard Wicks also had a nice game rushing and receiving. I like the way the Cougars are mixing up touches for the running backs and not just relying on the simple inside-zone play we’ve become accustomed to when it comes to the Cougs.
Wicks and Harrington both had big plays on quick, behind-the-line screens that look like a pass into the flat -- but the RB stays behind the line so the receivers can block their man.
And Harrington’s highlight-reel touchdown run came from the Cougs’ new under-center formation.
The issue with balance comes into play mostly in short-yardage situations. Luke Falk is doing a better job of checking to runs at the line of scrimmage -- however, having a better understanding of down-and-distance situations can render it even more improved.
At one point Saturday, WSU had a third-and-one where they attempted to throw a double slant combination. The pass was broken up and although the Cougs ran it on fourth down and were stopped for no gain, on third-and-short either Falk, or Leach, must call a run so the offense doesn’t have to get to that fourth-down situation. This 2015 version of the Air Raid offense is starting to show some good wrinkles but for the Cougars to find success in the Pac-12 they are going to have to maintain some kind of balance between run and pass.
3) Wide Receiver Blocking
It never gets enough ink or attention, but it is a truly vital part of what makes the Air Raid so effective. The use of wide receiver quick screens and quick throws to the running back act as an extension of the running game and in turn also allow the Cougars to drop back and throw down field. It opens up room for slot men like River Cracraft (pictured above) to find the stress points in the coverage.
The past three years, the WSU receivers have been excellent at blocking in the screen game and have created many big plays from easy throws. But in 2015, there have been a number of times through three games where these wide receiver quick screens have been stopped for little or no gain.
Washington State spends a fair amount of time working on these fundamentals in practice but, much like defense, blocking on the perimeter is a mentality.
The receiver has to want it more than the defensive back. It is unrealistic to expect Falk to consistently be effective dropping back and throwing long without having the ability to get chunks of yardage in the screen game.
The timing of this bye week is perfect for Washington State. They managed to claw their way to a 2-1 record while breaking in a new defense and a young quarterback.
It is clear that the veteran leaders of this team need to continue to address how they motivate each other and get the rest of the group ready to play. I have little doubt that anyone in that Cougar Football Complex building is satisfied with where they are at. With three games of film the Cougar coaches can regroup and focus on issues that must be addressed.
A tough game against Cal is on the horizon but a match up with a familiar offense, and not one as centered around downhill running, will be a welcome sight.