WSU Vs. UCLA: Revisiting The Offensive Gameplan

The WSU Cougars leaned heavily on Logwone Mitz and the rest of the rushing attack for the first time all year in an effort to shorten the game against UCLA. And it very nearly worked.

In this week's Cougar Sports Weekly, I talked about how WSU was plagued by a serious lack of explosiveness in the passing game. In the newsletter, I placed most of the "blame," as it were, at the feet of Marshall Lobbestael's weaker arm, which is unable to force the ball down field against the sort of conservative coverage the UCLA Bruins employed for the vast majority of the game.

In an effort to to not bury readers with 1,500 words on the topic, I decided not to explore all of the potential nuances that went into the offense's dink-and-dunk execution. The fun, of course, is that I have more than one forum where I can try to sort out all this stuff rattling around in my head, and I want to explore this a little further.

While I certainly still believe Lobbestael's physical tools were the primary factor in the paltry 5.9 yards per passing attempt, the Cougars were obviously more than just passive participants in the Bruins' master plan to limit the Cougars' big plays, something that's clear when you look at the run/pass ratio from the game.

The difference in philosophy was stark, as you see in the following table. Note that I've moved sacks into the "passes" category and adjusted the rushing totals accordingly; sacks were counted as "zeroes" for the purpose of yards per passing attmept:

Rushes Pct. YPC Passes Pct. YPA TOP
SDSU 22 31% 4.3 48 69% 7.7 24:17
Colorado 24 32% 4.1 52 68% 7.2 27:48
UCLA 38 48% 4.1 42 53% 5.6 36:47

 

The interesting thing is that the running game wasn't all that any more effective against UCLA than it was in the previous two games; it's just that WSU chose to hand the ball off a bunch more. And it wasn't an accident.

"We wanted to control the clock and we did a lot of what we wanted to do, because we didn’t want to put our defense in the position where (UCLA) could wear us down," Wulff said after the game.

The best way to do that? Lots of rushes, lots of short and safe passes. Conservative isn't sexy, especially when we've gotten used to seeing a fair amount of big plays. And when your team ends up losing when it is able to march up and down the field, only to stall inside the red zone, it can lead to some second guessing.

At this point, though, I have a hard time finding fault in the gameplan. Given what happened last year, and given the way teams have been able to run on the Cougs late -- SDSU's Ronnie Hillman went crazy, and even Colorado's Rodney Stewart broke off a long one -- I can understand the desire to limit UCLA's opportunities to wear down the WSU defense.

Call it Bennett Ball, if you will, as WSU was basically seeking to shorten the game.

When you consider UCLA outgained WSU by nearly two yards per play -- 6.7 to 4.9 -- yet needed a late comeback to win, it appears to make even that much more sense to do what the Cougars did. The numbers suggest a more rash, impatient strategy could have pretty easily led to a worse defeat.

It nearly worked, too: If any one of a handful of things goes the Cougars' way -- if Jared Karstetter simply holds onto that touchdown pass -- the Cougs win and we're talking about how brilliant it was to ramp up the time of possession. Instead, the Cougars came up empty on seven shots inside the 10, and we're talking about a loss.

WSU and UCLA were basically engaged in a giant game of poker, with the Cougs betting they could execute well enough to control the tempo and score touchdowns without big plays, and the Bruins betting they could give up chunks of yardage but stop WSU once the field was shortened.

UCLA gambled correctly. But I don't think the ultimate result made WSU's strategy a bad one -- sometimes, it just doesn't work out. What do you think? Should the Cougs have done something different? And what do you think should be the strategy heading into Saturday's game against No. 7 Stanford?

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