The Cougars were once again consistent on offense and defense, with only a small hiccup on special teams. A huge reason for this newfound consistency is the play of the Washington State offensive and defensive lines.
I want to jump into what the d-line did on Saturday and look ahead to Stanford but first I have to start with a pillar of the WSU offense: the mesh concepts.
What is difficult for a quarterback in mesh is that when a team plays a lot of zone coverage, the receivers have to read an area to sit down. This takes time for them to cross the field and then find that window. Because the offensive line generally provides such a good pocket we have seen Luke Falk hit those underneath crossers a lot.
If the defense is able to take away the shallow routes, the quarterback has to move to his third read which is the post dig route behind them. Falk executed this to perfection on his final touchdown to Gabe Marks, once again because of the time provided by the offensive line.
The WSU defensive line got a lot of attention heading into the season because many figured they would be the tipping point for new DC Alex Grinch. This group got off to a tough start against Portland State, but has since responded with inspired play that has been a kick starter for the entire defensive unit.
Right off the bat on Arizona’s first drive Saturday, the front four stood tall on third and fourth down. On third-and-two, Darryl Paulo slipped inside the offensive tackle and stopped the running back for no gain. On fourth down, Hercules Mata'afa made a great play, slanting hard inside and forcing the running back to cut back on an inside zone run. Ivan McLennan was there to clean it up for a turnover on downs.
This series truly set the tone. QB Anu Solomon was constantly under pressure and the Wildcat offensive line was forced into multiple holding calls. The few big plays Arizona was able to get with Solomon in the game was when Washington State only rushed three players. This allowed him time to better survey the field and for his receivers to put pressure on the Cougar secondary.
The one concern for the WSU defense in general coming out of the win: how they responded to a change in quarterbacks by Rich Rodriguez. Jerrard Randall added another dimension with his legs and the Cougar defensive line and linebacker units struggled to make the adjustment. Indeed, the Wildcats’ ability to use Randall in the running game and create big plays off misdirection almost allowed a miraculous come from behind victory.
The fact is Washington State is much more effective against less mobile, drop back passers because of the way Grinch utilizes different line stunts and linebacker pressures. Fortunately for WSU, the rest of the Cougars’ schedule features offenses with less mobile players at the quarterback position.
I cannot say enough good things about the play of the WSU offensive line. This veteran group of LT Joe Dahl, LG Gunnar Eklund, C Riley Sorenson, LG Eduardo Middleton and RT Cole Madison has really come together over the last few years and is a huge reason for the consistent play of the entire Cougar offense.
The revelation of the running game in the Air Raid this year is owed in large part to the way the offensive line is able to get to the second level defenders. Jamal Morrow had a huge third quarter run Saturday that was a direct result of Middleton's pancaking the Wildcat middle linebacker.
In a zone running scheme, if the linebackers are able to alter the running back’s track at the line of scrimmage it allows for the rest of the defense to rally and make a play for little or no gain. The Washington State offensive line’s improvement in this area has really helped the offensive balance.
In addition to their improvement in the run game, I have been very impressed with the way this offensive line unit blocks on screen plays. I cannot stress enough how difficult it is for an offensive lineman to block linebackers and defensive backs in the open field. Yet we saw multiple times in this game, most importantly on the Marks' catch and run for a touchdown, when the Cougar lineman were able to block Arizona defenders out in space.
Accordingly, the running back slow screen and the wide receiver jailbreak screen have become incredibly effective weapons in the WSU offense.
Last, but certainly not least, is the way the offensive line has been able to protect Falk throughout the season. Although there have been a few games where the sack total has been high, that is more a product of Falk hanging onto the ball a little too long than the offensive line getting beat.
Arizona was able to get to the quarterback twice on Saturday, but only the second sack in the third quarter was the result of an offensive lineman getting beat.
Also of significance: the way the offensive line consistently provides a pocket that Falk is able to step up into -- rarely do we see the center and guards getting pushed back into the quarterback’s lap.
This is hugely important because many of the Air Raid concepts require throws over the middle. It is imperative that Falk is able to step through the pocket and finish his throws so the ball doesn’t sail high.
With a huge matchup this weekend on the Palouse against Stanford I’m sure many of you can see where I've been headed with this article: The Cougars’ recent struggles when it comes to the Cardinal have been at the line of scrimmage on both sides.
The Stanford defensive line has consistently been able to get pressure on WSU quarterbacks with just four, sometimes three, rushers. This throws off the timing of the Air Raid because the receivers don’t have time to find holes in the zone coverage.
On the offensive side, we already know what Stanford is going to bring to the table. In the past, Washington State was so focused on stopping the run by adding safeties into the box they got beat over the top with play action passes. For the Cougars to slow the Cardinal offense this weekend they have to find a way to control the line of scrimmage with just the defensive line and linebackers.
As good as the WSU lines have played so far, this Saturday will be their toughest test by far.
But the experience the Cougars have on both sides of the ball will serve them well. Most of these guys have played against Stanford and know what to expect. And if WSU wins, there is no doubt that victory in Pullman would come as a result of Washington State’s ability to win the battle up front.
It’s going to be great theater down in the trenches Saturday night out on the Palouse.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And 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: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). 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.