Before you read this, ask yourself what the strength of the Cougar offense is. Is it the tight ends and running backs? Is it the wide receivers? The offensive line? What part of the Cougar offense should we emphasize every game?
The answer to the above questions should be simple for anyone that's seen this year's version of the Cougar offense. The skill lies at the wide receiver position. Thus far, the line is struggling and the Cougar running backs have yet to establish a consistent running game. When Rickey Galvin broke his arm on his first carry of the year, the Cougars lost their explosive, big-play threat on the ground. Instead of changing it up, Sturdy and the offense continue to pound the ball into running lanes that don't exist instead of getting the ball to the playmakers on offense.
The playcalling is easy to criticize in football. No matter what happens, fans will have an issue with how games are called when the offense is sputtering. The Cougar playcalling has been bad, but look beyond just the plays to find the root of the problem.
The Cougs are not a power team, yet the packages the offense continues to run out are centered on a power running game. The double tight end set is a staple of the Sturdy offense, with one usually playing as a wing. We knew that coming it, but the hope was they'd spread the field more with the talent at wide receiver.
When the offense comes out with two tight ends, one running back and two wide receivers, the defense can compact itself into the middle of the field, taking away running lanes and clogging the middle. The offensive line and tight ends simply aren't good enough to run it up the gut in these situations.
So we've identified the wide receivers are the strength and that running out jumbo sets isn't working two years into the Todd Sturdy experience. Add it all up and we have a solution. Spread the field. With Jared Karstetter, Marquess Wilson, Isiah Barton, Gino Simone, Daniel Blackledge and Jeffrey Solomon, the Cougar offense has the depth and talent at receiver to run out three- and four-wide sets. If the defense doesn't respect it, the Cougs can easily get the ball out wide. If they do, it takes players out of the box and opens up the running game. Either way, it plays to the Cougar strengths.
Now, we move to the playcalling. Against SMU, the playcalling simply didn't take advantage of the weaknesses of the Mustang defense. SMU plays the run fairly well but has been susceptible to the pass. The Mustangs sport a secondary without a player over six feet tall. In fact, with Sterling Moore out, SMU rolled out a 5'8 corner on one side and a 5'9 corner on the other. Marquess Wilson is 6'3 and Jared Karstetter is 6'4. Do the math.
In addition to the obvious height advantage, SMU loves to blitz. They brought pressure right up the middle most of the day against the Cougs and typically blitz seven out of ten times. To counter that, WSU left tight ends in pass protection instead of simply getting the ball out. Taking players out of the pattern may have helped with protection, but it also made coverage easier and severely limited the options for Jeff Tuel.
Countering blitzes up-the-gut should be simple. Swing the ball out to to receivers using jailbreak and bubble screens or let the SMU players come and throw a running back screen. At one point in the second half, Tuel had James Montgomery on a screen that should've gone for a big gain, only to overthrow him. Nevertheless, the screen was there all day.
Finally, when the offense did run screens out-wide, they were done in head-shaking fashion. After begging for a screen, we finally got one, only to see a wide receiver screen run out of a jumbo set with an offensive lineman pulling to block. The playcall and formation lead everyone -- including the CBS College Sports commentators -- to wonder what the heck Sturdy was thinking.
We're all worried about the offensive line and whether or not they can protect Tuel in the passing game. That doesn't mean that our fears -- and the fears of the coaches -- should stop WSU from trying to throw the ball. If the line can't hold blocks long enough for Tuel to throw deep, then come out of the blocks with short routes and screens.
Throwing out of a three-step drop or catching and throwing out of the shotgun negates the deficiencies of the offensive line. It protects the quarterback and quickly gets the ball to the Cougar playmakers. Run some slants against corners playing off. Throw outside screens to receivers and quick screens to the running backs. Plays like these serve as a high percentage pass-play that's almost like running the ball.
Is there an easy fix here? Probably not. Calling for Sturdy to be fired isn't it. Taking away the playcalling duties may do some of it, but the fundamental philosophy implemented over the last two years and emphasized in camp would also have to be changed on the fly. The system is flawed and broken at its root and, barring a massive change that will likely result in growing pains, can't be fixed in a matter of days.
At this point, the coaching staff is dancing with the girl they brought. Throughout the spring, WSU had a small number of capable receivers and installed the scheme accordingly. It sure looks like they think they can win as a power team. They can't. The talent isn't there to do it. The sooner they realize this, the sooner they can work to correct it.
Unfortunately, without a bye -- and, in fact, two byes in a row -- until the end of the season, it seems unlikely we'll see a wholesale change. Instead, the best we can probably hope for is a gradual shift toward a more spread-oriented offense.