This post may have a shelf life about four days, but perhaps that's somewhat fitting. After all, the last time I wrote about Washington State offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, the angle I took had a shelf life of less than a week. Just about 14 months ago, Sturdy was the subject of a post about the Cougars' offense simply not getting it done. Since then, the offense has evolved to utilize the strength of its personnel: the skill players.
Outside of Paul Wulff, Sturdy is the most polarizing figure on the Washington State coaching staff. He's not quite on Wulff's level, but Sturdy is the easy target of ire as the offensive coordinator. In fact, universally, it's almost always the offensive coordinator that comes under fire when the fans are restless.
To me, the reason is simple: It's easy to pick apart an offense. For the most part, we can tell what the plays are, what's supposed to happen and what goes wrong in real-time. There's traps, of course, leading to anger about a screen or short pass on third and long -- these are checks and hot routes almost every time -- but it's easy for just about anyone to understand what's happening on the offensive side of the ball.
Now compare that to the defensive side. Alex Hoffman-Ellis was right when he said the common fan doesn't understand the Cougars' scheme and what they're trying to do within a specific gameplan. To understand takes time, all-22 film and an understanding of many coverage schemes. Breaking down a defense can't be done effectively in real-time, unlike the offense.
And so the offensive coordinator draws the ire and calls of "Fire Sturdy" erupt. At one point, I was one of those that wouldn't have cared if Sturdy was sent packing. But I've changed my mind and have actually done a complete 180 in the last 14 months.
One of my favorite parts of the week is the short few minutes I'm able to talk to Sturdy. Yes, I criticized him and continue to do so when warranted, but speaking with him allows me to understand who he is, what he's trying to do, and why certain plays work or don't in a given situation. He's candid, open and honest. I always learn something new.
And he's smart. You may think "Sure, he's a Pac-12 coordinator. He has to be smart." But considering the barbs thrown his way, it's worth establishing a baseline here. Listening to him talk about his offense, how he uses formations to create mismatches and the work that goes into creating the gameplan before the team takes the field, it's clear he knows what the hell he's doing.
For instance, take the following quote, which explains what Sturdy was looking for on Connor Halliday's first play from scrimmage against Arizona State. Sturdy's quote is followed by Halliday's about the same play. And remember: In this offense, the quarterback -- in this case a redshirt freshman still getting his feet wet -- has to be an extension of the offensive coordinator on the field. The quarterback is the maestro, and does a ton of work at the line.
"They were playing a cover four stay. So the backside safety was playing to the three, Marquess was by himself," Halliday said about his first throw against Arizona State. "The cornerback bit on the running back swing route, so Marquess was all alone."
"We were hoping they were gonna take their weak safety and cross him to the No. 3 on the strong side of the field. So we put three vertical. We just ran a switch route with Marquess and the running back on the one receiver side," Sturdy said. "We were hoping the corner would bite on the swing route, leaving the WIL backer on Marquess down the hash. We kinda got what we hoped."
In fact, the redshirt freshman and his offensive coordinator speak as if their words are rehearsed. They were that similar. It was incredibly noticeable to me, and something I found interesting.
"They clouded the corner, played a safety over the top of Marquess. Marquess stuttered a little bit and it held the safety just enough," Sturdy said, referring to Halliday's last throw against Arizona State. "The only shot we had was a side pocket throw and the ball had to be driven. Connor had a great sense of anticipation on there, safety didn't get there."
"They were playing a cloud corner and a safety over the top of him. Pretty much double-teaming him," Halliday said about the same play. "We ran a double-move -- a stutter route -- and he beat the corner, but the safety was over the top of him, so I just threw it as hard as I could to the back shoulder and just hoped Marquess could make a play for me"
This year, more than anything else, has shown me how much of an asset Sturdy is and how dynamic he can be as a coordinator. WSU has gone through three different quarterbacks, each requiring different gameplans. Along the way, the Cougars have survived and adapted. Where once I felt a Jeff Tuel injury would completely doom the team, now I realize there's depth, strength and a coordinator that's willing and able to adapt on the fly with at least a measure of success.
With Marshall Lobbestael, the gameplan had to change; shorter throws and a clock-chewing offense was the name of the game, and Lobbestael had to play within himself. The growth Lobbestael has shown between his freshman year and now -- and how he understands his limitations -- can be attributed to his position coach. And Sturdy helped by designing a gameplan that utilized more short throws that played to Lobbestael's strengths.
With Connor Halliday, the Cougars found a young kid with a big arm, but the gameplan had to change again. Sturdy admitted he kept more protection in the backfield to ease Halliday into the mix. The young quarterback isn't adept at recognizing the blitz, so the offense was tailored around his skills, letting him throw with seven-man protections and allowing him to think less. It certainly seemed to work in the two games Halliday played.*
*Yes, he was ultimately injured, but consider the WSU offensive line was down to its third right tackle, and Halliday was still working with heavy protection sets quite a bit in the Utah game.
Whether or not you realize it, the Cougars' offense is incredibly nuanced -- predicated on pre- and post-snap reads and reactions by the skill players. It's a spread, sure, but there's a lot of moving parts, and it's taken time for the unit as a whole to gel and come together like a well-oiled machine.
We can argue about sticking with a conservative, max-protect offense during the early portion of the coaching staff's tenure. I can list off the reasons -- a swiss cheese line, skill players that struggled, injuries to quarterbacks -- but it doesn't matter: the past is the past and where the offense is now leaves me impressed.
I've heard many times that Paul Wulff's loyalty to Todd Sturdy may cost him his job as head coach of Washington State. I prefer to look at it a different way: If Wulff keeps his job, it will be because of Sturdy, the evolution of the offense, and its ability to improve over time. And in many ways, I'd love to see what Sturdy's offense looks like with the crop of players coming back next year -- with a healthy Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, a full compliment of skill players and weapons all around.