1. WSU Offensive Line: Plenty of time
So many times of late, Luke Falk has dropped back and gone through his reads, reset his feet and we hear the TV announcer say, ‘Falk with plenty of time ...’ and the he goes back again through his reads, and finally hits a Cougar WR for a big play. The WSU offensive line, behind senior leadership in center Riley Sorenson and right guard Eduardo Middleton, have been difference makers on the Cougs' historic eight-game winning streak.
An example from WSU-Cal: Falk moves Gerard Wicks from a strong formation to the weak side. Falk, seeing the box has shifted and pressure is coming off the right edge, calls for a stretch run away from the defensive strength. Starting against such wide splits, the defensive end is already taken out of the play as Wicks takes his steps. On Wicks' third step he is looking to the point of attack which is supposed to be the B gap, but what he sees is Sorenson taking the nose tackle for a ride and creating a huge hole in the backside A gap.
As Wicks negotiates through the line of scrimmage, he sees left guard Cody O’Connell take on the linebacker, perfectly square. This positioning is key as it gives Wicks a two-way read on the block, and Wicks is able to bounce back outside to get to the edge of the defense. The result is a 32-yard run as receivers Kyle Sweet and C.J. Dimry do their part blocking to lock up the secondary.
Someone may need to call the Fat Five. There's a new group in Pullman in need of a worthy nickname.
2. A defense with attitude
One of the best things a defense can be known for is having an edge, an attitude that says even after you creased us for 30 yards we are going to continue coming down hill.
Cougar LB Frankie Luvu (6-2, 230) taking on Cal 300-pound h-back Malik McMorris means the advantage lies with Cal, but Luvu attacks. Luvu doesn’t make the play, but he defends it, controlling his gap and thereby, letting his D do what they do.
DE Hercules Mata’afa on a third-and-one attacks a double team and though he has a combined 600 pounds pushing at him, he is able to keep his motor running, find a crease and clean up dangerous Cal RB Khalfani Muhammad in the backfield for a loss. And speaking of motors on defense, MIKE Peyton Pelluer continues to fly sideline to sideline tracking down plays.
The attitude of this 2016 Cougar defense continues to be seen with the second and third guy arriving at the pile with full force to ensure the tackle. That swarm is preventing long plays from missed tackles, something that demoralized Washington State early in the year.
3. Atta Boy: Nate DeRider
The Washington State defense is proving to be both bend but don’t break, and a unit that can dominate games at times. A drive late in the second quarter illustrates it nicely.
* A big bend: Cal completes a 45-yard bomb down into the Cougar red zone.
* First down: Three defenders rally to a WR screen and limit a play that could have gone for more.
* Second down: DL Garrett McBroom stuffs the RB for a one-yard gain.
* Third down: Cal sends a WR in motion, shifting the zone defense. Derider steps up to respect the play action, and then flips his hips to drop back into his hook/curl zone. As he is dropping he finds a Cal WR entering his area. The Cal receiver, thinking he is about to strike up the band, waves his hand to Bear QB Davis Webb. Cal is down 21-7 and a score would be huge. Webb sends the throw into the back of the end zone, Derider undercuts it for a huge WSU red zone takeaway and his first INT.
After missing a field goal on the previous drive, and now having this drive end in a pick in the end zone, this was demoralizing for Cal. The Cougs promptly took it into the end zone and for a 28-7 lead and left Cal with 30 seconds on the clock before halftime.
And DeRider wasn't done. On Cal’s first drive of the second half Derider blitzes on second-and-four, getting the lone sack of the game by either team and forcing a third-and-long, followed by a Cal punt. Credit to DeRider for two big momentum-seizing plays, but even more to d-coordinator Alex Grinch who every week has another member of his group step up.
4. Consecutive 50-plus point games and balance
Halfway through the second quarter of WSU-Cal, the Cougs had 12 runs, 12 passes. The dual threat forced a weak Cal run defense to keep seven players in the box, leading to some WSU throws downfield into one-on-one coverage.
While not all the passes resulted in big plays (like when freshman WR Isaiah Johnson beat a corner on a post route for a 30-yard pick up) the long ball threat creates penalties and loosens a defense up. And let’s talk about the flat routes.
I love the flat routes: it gets the ball out of Falk’s hands quickly and utilizes the stable of WSU running backs. The defense is looking for something else and bam, suddenly the ball is in the hands of, say, RB James Williams in the flat. These long hand offs instantly create an advantage when a LB is responsible for Williams in the open field.
Once the ball is in a playmaker's hands in the flat, he is a quick juke (and/or spin) away from a 15-yard gain. Sidebar: Spinning, like hurdling, is always athletically impressive but in a practical sense it can be a negative. On a red zone run late in the game on Saturday, Williams spun again when sticking his foot in the ground ... while cutting upfield instead may have gotten him into the end zone.
I loved the play where Jamal Morrow (pictured above) reversed field, finding daylight behind a Falk block. When your QB gets a block in the run game, it is safe to say you have a truly balanced attack. The bigger picture from that play: Preparing for the Cougar offense right now is like picking your poison and then resignedly accepting your fate.
5) Play of the Game: Kaleb Fossum's punt return
Let's break it down. The return unit sets up for a middle scheme: this play design has everyone accounted for but the snapper, that player is on the return man to make miss. Everyone else should have inside leverage and create a lane right between the hashes.
Fossum, a second-year sophomore, fields the punt at the 25-yard line and with a simple step, freezes the first would-be tackler. This step also begins to set up the rest of the blocking scheme. Fifth-year senior DB Colton Teglovic is in a "trail position" which means you are running stride for stride with your assignment, living in his back pocket. The task gets harder when the coverage player breaks down to go in for the tackle and you have to use both your hat and hand placement to uproot him away from the ball, which Teglovic executes on this return.
The most poetic block is called a "Hip By" which can be utilized when you may be a step out of position. Another fifth-year senior DB, Paris Taylor, uses this technique beautifully as Fossum runs past -- Taylor simply gets his hips in between the defender and the ball, creating the lane that gutted the Bear’s coverage unit.
Once again, I must point out the disadvantage of this punt scheme that Cal employed once again, as the formation inevitably allows four players (three offensive linemen and the punter) on the coverage unit to not be coverage players. Fossum breaks the first wave of defenders and is all alone. And 75 yards later, less than 90 seconds into the game, WSU has landed a haymaker to go up 7-0 after the first punt return for a TD in 11 years of Cougar football.
6) Player of the Game: River Cracraft
Cracraft hauled in three TDs in what would end up being his last game as a Cougar after tearing his ACL. All season, fourth-year senior slot receiver River Cracraft has been making the extraordinary seem, well, ordinary with catches meant for players a foot taller and with body control admired by ballerinas. Let's linger on some of that greatness:
* Cracraft has a crossing route where he sees the safety sitting shallow and he has the vision to just drop behind the line of defense for a score.
* Cracraft is running a corner route where the safety is playing it flat and so he bends the route for the back of the end zone. Falk drops in a pass I am sure these two ran 100 time this summer in offseason skelly -- right on the pylon -- and Cracraft hauls it in with his body halfway into the stands, with nothing but his left big toe dragging in the end zone.
* Second-and-20, the Bears jump offsides and Falk knows he has a free play. Falk finds Cracraft on an all seams route: having lined up in a trips formation, Cracraft now must work his way across the center of the defense and fill the seam route on the opposite side of the formation. The alignment allows Cracraft to cross the safety’s face and gives Falk enough of a window to work. The play is made when Cracraft shows off his freakish body control again and freezes in midair long enough to come down with another extraordinary catch made ordinary by one of the most prolific receivers WSU has ever had.
Cracraft's heart, hustle and leadership have been felt all season. No one wants to end the year early, but with a hat trick of touchdowns, it’s not a bad way to bow out.
A balanced offense, attacking defense and a dependable special teams unit have all been in play as WSU goes for its ninth win in a row Saturday against Colorado (12:30 pm, Fox). And with two regular seasons games to go, the Cougs are one of the hottest teams in the country.
Click! Click! Click!
That is the sound of all three phases being in sync. The Cougars are not just winning games right now, they are looking oh-so-complete in doing it. Credit must be handed to each of the WSU coaches. “You are either coaching it or allowing it to happen.” The words that were taken to heart at 0-2, are now words said with pride.
Every Saturday is unique and this week WSU faces a tougher opponent and on hostile land. But if the Cougs continue to execute all three phases, Wazzu will continue to click.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.
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