Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Alex Brink

THE BITTER TASTE in my mouth after Washington State’s loss at No. 24-ranked Cal still hasn’t gone away. The Cougars handed a very winnable game to the Golden Bears. Sure there were a couple special teams miscues, but what worries me more is that WSU wasted a quality defensive effort by not capitalizing on the offensive side of the football.

Although the fake punt and onside kick mistakes are inexcusable, I believe the offense had opportunities to carry this team to victory. The way that Mike Leach coaches and the way this team is built, the Cougars are only going to go as far as the offense takes them.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch had a phenomenal game plan and his players responded by holding the powerful Cal offense to 27 points, forcing two turnovers and holding the Golden Bears twice on fourth down. It wasn’t perfect, but it was by far the most consistent defensive performance we have seen all year.

The reason for Washington State’s success against Cal was that Grinch utilized a number of different fronts and coverages to keep Cal off balance.

These were the coverages:

TAMPA 2 – Grinch leaned heavily on a traditional Tampa 2 coverage scheme against the Golden Bears. In Tampa 2 there are two high safeties responsible for the deep halves of the field like traditional Cover 2. The difference is that the Mike linebacker takes a deep drop to the middle of the field to help take away any deep throws in between the safeties. This is the coverage the Cougs were in when Marcellus Pippins picked off Jared Goff on the third snap of the game. He did a great job of diagnosing the route concept and dropping underneath the corner route to pick Goff off.

COVER 1 – I really like that Grinch utilized some man blitzes to get pressure on Goff. He knew that if he zone blitzed, the talented QB would pick them apart so instead he would blitz linebackers Peyton Pelluer and Jeremiah Allison and play man coverage behind it.

3 CLOUD – On long-down situations WSU would show its traditional 4-2 front with either Kache Palacio or Ivan McLennan in the stand-up rush end position. At the snap of the ball they would drop into the flat to the short side of the field. The CB to that side would rotate high and both safeties would roll to the wide side of the field. By mixing Tampa 2 and 3 Cloud, WSU made it tough on Goff to recognize coverages pre-snap, which led to him holding on to the ball at times.

2 READ/PALMS – This version of Cover 2 looks a lot like Cover 4. The safeties line up about 12 yards deep and the corners are around 6-to-8 yards deep. Unlike traditional Cover 2 the safeties do not bail to the deep half of the field. Instead, both the corner and the safety are reading the receivers to their side. If the inside receiver breaks out the corner will jump it and the safety will look to help on the outside receiver. If both receivers were to run vertical it would essentially turn to man coverage with the defensive back running with their respective receiver. Although it takes a lot of communication and practice, this is one of my favorite defensive coverages because it is very difficult for the offense to determine what the defenders are doing. Pippins almost had another interception on a short out-route from the inside receiver during the first quarter in this coverage.

OFFENSIVELY, THE COUGARS STRUGGLED to take control of this game at key points. Right off the bat, the Cougar defense forced a turnover and the offense proceeded to go three-and-out. More important, there were a number of opportunities late in the game that the offense squandered.

With five minutes left in the third quarter the defense came up with a huge forced fumble following a touchdown drive by the offense. At the time the Cougars were leading 28-20. Luke Falk immediately went downfield to Gabe Marks to get the ball to the 9-yard line. The key play came on second down when Falk threw a great ball to Dom Williams who dropped it in the end zone. Cal blitzed on third down and came up with a sack that eventually led to the missed field goal by Erik Powell on fourth down. If Williams comes up with that ball on second down, the Cougars take a commanding 35-20 lead and I don’t think they ever look back.

In addition to that missed opportunity there were three more instances in the fourth quarter where the WSU offense could have taken the lead. On the possession following the onside kick Washington State put together a nice drive that was eventually undone by a Gabe Marks fumble on the Cal 20-yard-line. Then with just under twelve minutes left in the fourth quarter the Cougars got the ball back on their own 42. On second-and-11 Falk just barely missed a streaking Keith Harrington running down the sideline on a wheel route that would have been a huge play.

A play that I’m sure stands out in everyone’s mind is the third-and-36 that the WSU defense gave up following the forced fumble on Goff. What people may not remember is that the defense responded with a stop on fourth down that gave the offense the ball with 4:38 left on its own 38. WSU immediately got a first-down completion to Williams to put the ball at midfield with over four minutes left in the game. Unfortunately, Falk was rushed and threw a ball late down the middle to Tyler Baker that was intercepted.

Fair or not, offense is the calling card for Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars. If they can come up with touchdowns in any of these situations they come away with a victory in Berkeley.

What I have seen from the defense over the past few weeks gives me hope as WSU moves into the meat of the Pac-12 schedule. There is a very winnable game on tap this Saturday in Eugene. If the Washington State defense continues to grow and the offense executes consistently, I believe (even with marginal special teams play) this team can get a victory against the Ducks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on but once-upon-a-time, he was the starting quarterback at Washington State. From 2004-2007, he threw for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing five years in the Canadian Football League with Winnipeg and Montreal. He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.

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