Analyzing Washington State's pre-snap shifts on offense, and the designed disruption against the Ducks

PULLMAN – Washington State has been shifting up front on the defensive line all season. But this past Saturday against the Ducks, head man Mike Leach busted out a new strategy on offense. You might have noticed some bizarre looking formations, pre-snap, prior to quarterback Luke Falk signaling to shift the offense.

I can’t tell you exactly why Leach decided on the new strategy because I'm not in the coaches meeting.  But having played the last two seasons for the Cougs, I can make an educated guess.  And as a former DB, I can definitely tell you what kind of challenges it presents for a defense. So let’s get into it.

First of all, the Cougs lined up in about a dozen of different pre-snap formations. Here is one WSU ran on Saturday:

As you can see,
1.     QB Luke Falk lined up under center
2.    RB  Jamal Morrow line up as a wingback left of LT Andre Dillard
3.     Z Isaiah Johnson-Mack lined up at RB directly behind Falk
4.     Y John Thompson lined up as an offset fullback, to the right of "RB" Johnson-Mack
5.     X C.J. Dimry and H Robert Lewis stacked each other with tight splits about a yard right of RT Cole Madison

Now, after the shift:  Falk went back into the shotgun, Morrow lined up right of Falk, Dimry and Lewis sprinted to the left to lineup at X and H, respectively, while Thompson and Johnson-Mack went to the right to line up at Y and Z -- ultimately it all lined up like this:

Leach's objective was to confuse the Oregon defense and to force them to think about more things than one.

And so here's one final way to look at it.

AS OFFENSIVE FORMATIONS CHANGE, defensive alignment and assignments change.

It also forces the defense to communicate with each other – leading to the very possible chance there is some miscommunication in the process, and some defender when the ball is snapped will be running a different play than everyone else.

Here's something else to consider: most defenses at this level have a go-to audible that can be called at any time in the case of mass confusion. Now, it’s possible that Leach knew what Oregon's “go-to” play might have been, so running a shift could have checked Oregon’s defense out of whatever they initially wanted to run, and forced them to make that audible into some defensive play that Leach knew.

Let's be clear: I’m not saying that was the case. My guess is that it probably wasn't. But it’s at least a possibility that should be considered (and a rather delicious one given all the self-imposed secrecy at Oregon when it comes to practice and, well, just about everything else regarding Duck football strategy over the years between the last two UO head coaches. Oh we're looking right at you, Chip Kelly).

That said, the more probable reason: the formation shift can simply get Oregon out of its initial play call and force them to run one of its “base” types of defense. That in turn gives the Cougs an advantage, because Oregon has to sort out what’s going on. And potentially by the time that happens, the ball is snapped.

Another likelihood: the formation may have forced Oregon to make a more aggressive defensive play call, due to the tight formation, with the use of multiple backs and wings.  After the switch, it could confuse the Ducks as to which play call they should switch to.

As a result, the defense would most likely stay in its more aggressive call -- and open up throwing lanes for Falk.

THE POINT is to reign down confusion on the defense, and to force the defense to multitask with the snap imminent. A lot of teams do it, and it really only works against teams who are undisciplined (*cough, cough*).

As the game wore on, Oregon figured things out and the shift eventually became ineffective. Once the Duck D picked up on the fact that WSU wasn’t going to run any plays out of these formations, they started to catch on and wait for the standard Air-Raid line up before they made their calls. But by that time, WSU was well ahead on the scoreboard.

Will we see more of this against Stanford?  My guess is no, Oregon and Stanford's defenses are different enough, and Leach has already shown it, so not sure he'd employ it on back-to-back Saturdays.

But you never know with Leach. Maybe this Saturday he snaps the ball out of some wacky formation when Stanford is expecting him to shift back into a more traditional Air Raid set. After all, here's a guy who some day says he wants to run it every play one game, and pass it every single play the next game. Have fun preparing for that.

RELATED STORY: Notebook from WSU win over Oregon

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