WSU Vs. SDSU: Grading The Offensive Line

This continues our look back at grading the "5 Things I Want To See From The Cougars" at San Diego State. I covered the defensive tackles here, linebackers here. If you're tired of reading about bad stuff from the game, this one is for you!

What I Wrote:

The offensive line not missing a beat. The five guys up front have been awesome, and one has to wonder how much of that has to do with continuity. That continuity is going to be tested tomorrow, as Andrew Roxas will miss the game with an injured ankle. Junior college transfer Taylor Meighen, who's been in the program since last spring, will take his place. There was a little bit of a competition between him and Roxas, so he's gotten time with the ones; in addition to that, he was originally an Air Force commit, so you figure he's pretty smart. I'll be looking for a seamless transition

The Grade: B+

The offensive line has deservedly taken a lot of crap over the first three years of Paul Wulff's tenure - averaging over 50 sacks given up a year with declining rushing totals by running backs in successive years will do that. But after three games, these guys deserve some major props.

Yes, they played SDSU without their regular center, and no, his replacement didn't play all that well - Meighen has been dropped to third on the depth chart this week. If Roxas isn't healthy, Matt Goetz will start.

But if you didn't know that and just looked at the results* from SDSU, you'd have to conclude the offensive line played very well. In fact, if there was an award for the best unit in that game, you'd almost certainly have to give it to these guys. Think about that for a minute.

*No, I'm not a fan of results-based analysis. But I'm not an expert on the nuances of offensive line play - even less so than the other stuff I analyze, where I'm learning as I go - so results-based analysis it is! Besides, this might be the one area of the field where results are a direct reflection of process, anyway.

There was a lot of talk going into the game about Rocky Long's quirky defense, which I spent a little bit of time talking about in Cougar Sports Weekly on Monday. If you didn't get the mailing, the Aztecs play a base 3-3-5 - three down linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs - in which one of the linebackers always rushes from the line of scrimmage. Often, it's simply as a stand-up end (against WSU, that was typically Miles Burris), but sometimes they mix it up by bringing the fourth guy from somewhere else. They also will periodically bring one or both of the other linebackers on a blitz, but the goal is generally to cause confusion along the offensive line, sometimes even when only rushing four.

For the past three years, we became resigned to the fact that the line couldn't block pretty much anyone 5-on-4 - or even 6-on-4 or 7-on-4 at times - and if the defense brought a blitz ... well, God help whoever happened to be standing behind that line. With that frame of reference, check out some stats from Saturday (charted by me; if you notice any inaccuracies, it's my fault):

  • 22 times, WSU passed against a straight four-man rush. The line yielded just one sack in those attempts - on the third-to-last play of the game - and just two other quarterback "hurries."
  • 15 times, WSU passed against a six-man blitz, yielding two sacks and two other hurries. (There was a third sack, on that blown up screen on which Lobbestael eventually fumbled, but that's hardly the line's fault.)
  • 10 times, WSU passed against a five-man blitz, yielding one sack and three hurries.
  • Three times, WSU passed against a four-man zone blitz, in which one or more of the three defensive linemen dropped back into coverage. One sack, no hurries.

Put together, Marshall Lobbestael had more than enough time to make his reads and get the ball off on three-quarters of his throws. I'm not going to pretend that's absolutely dominant offensive line play, but it's a hell of a lot better than anything we saw over the past three years, especially when you consider that the line faced blitzes on more than half of the passes with nothing more than a running back to help out in blitz pickup. And make no mistake - both Rickey Galvin and Carl Winston were fantastic in pass protection.* But the lion's share of the credit goes to the five guys in the trenches.  

*By the way, if you're wondering why Logwone Mitz didn't play a single down in this game, well, I'm certain this is your answer. He's long been considered a liability in pass protection, a reputation he didn't do anything to dispel in the first two games.

When you combine the pass protection with the 20 designed rushes on which WSU averaged a very respectable 4.1 yards, and then take the context of the last three years into account, a B+ grade is perfectly appropriate. To be honest, I thought about going higher, and for the first time in years, I feel confident that the line is heading in the right direction.

I don't know a whole lot about Colorado's defense, but my understanding is that they will be aggressive with blitzes, just as SDSU was. There's reason to believe the offensive line should be able to handle the Buffs. I still wonder how the line will stand up to the more physically imposing front fours on the schedule, but we probably won't have our answer to that until Stanford comes to Pullman.

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