There's a fair amount of dissonance between what Washington State was projected to do offensively before the season, and what they've actually accomplished through seven games. Whatever offense the Cougs are running, it certainly hasn't produced at the level everyone has come to expect from an offense coached by Mike Leach.
The problems at both the quarterback and receiver positions have been well vetted on this site. Repeated poor offensive execution on Saturdays has led some to question whether this team will even pick up Coach Leach's offense this season. Despite the loss to California, we were able to find evidence Wazzu is in fact, running the Air Raid. They are even beginning to find some success.
The Air Raid is conceptually much less complicated than you might think. Against Cal, the Cougs executed three signature Air Raid components; the back shoulder, the mesh and the wheel. These are not the sole concepts of the Air Raid, but their execution is highly important for the overall success of the offense.
The Back Shoulder
To my knowledge, the completion to Marquess Wilson on fourth down in the second quarter was the first successful back shoulder throw and catch of the year. Defenses, as demonstrated by the last three the Cougs have faced, will not always drop into a deep zone. They will occasionally come up and play man with their athletic defensive backs and have a safety or two freely roaming over the top. Man coverage on the outside has an incredibly difficult time guarding the back shoulder throw.
Cal will utilize a Cover 1 (man coverage with one free safety) against WSU on this particular fourth down play. Four Cal Bears are at the line of scrimmage and all the defensive backs are tight, one yard off the ball. The middle backer eventually walks up to show blitz.
With a vertical route called for the outside receivers, tight pre-snap alignment like this should signal a back shoulder to the receiver and quarterback. No check or audible should be necessary, the defensive alignment alone should imply a back shoulder. Quarterback Jeff Tuel is likely just adjusting line protection after the backer walks up and shows blitz.
Wilson adjusts to the back shoulder perfectly. He stops his route well after the ball is thrown, leaving the defender with little opportunity to react before a catch is made. Defensive backs are taught to read the eyes of the receiver in man coverage; when they look for the ball, you look for the ball. The Cal corner reads Wilson's eyes and turns to find the ball, looking away from Wilson but using his left hand to keep track of his movement. In the same stride he turns his head to spot the ball, Wilson pumps the breaks and gets his separation. No. 1's technique is about as well as you could hope to play in man coverage, Wilson's route is just that much better. The corner can either play the ball or the receiver, but not both at the same time.
Later on in the game the Cougs went to the back shoulder again. On a third and one in the fourth quarter, Tuel connects with receiver Isiah Myers to move WSU into the red zone. Five Cal Bears are on the line, with another backer in the box that will blitz.
The receivers all face tight man coverage except Bartolone, who gets a little bit of a cushion. The free safety starts on the hash and quickly moves to the bottom of the screen, following the eyes and quick throw from Tuel. The corner covering Myers turns his back to the field and allows Myers to run free down the sideline without a jam.
Timing is important for the back shoulder to be successful. With his back turned, the corner has no idea when the ball is thrown. His full attention is on the route of the wide receiver and in particular stopping any idea of coming back towards the middle of the field. The receiver should wait until as late as possible after the ball is thrown to slow his route. This will limit the amount of time a defensive back has to react and close the distance before the ball is there. Myers does this excellently, and a well placed ball by Tuel guides him to the outside.
On Sundays in the NFL you can see professionals, like Cal grad Aaron Rodgers and his Packers receiver core specifically, execute the back shoulder with such precision that the stopping of the route and arrival of the ball are almost instantaneous. Even at the WSU level of execution this route is nearly indefensible by man coverage.
It's no secret the mesh is a hallmark of the Air Raid, and the Cougs are getting better and better at running it. A "mesh" happens when two receivers run shallow crossing routes in opposite directions, passing so closely they could high five. For WSU, this typically occurs between the two inside receivers of an Ace formation within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The receiver on one side (typically Y, right) will set the depth of the mesh, and the other receiver (H, left) will run under it, or closer to the line of scrimmage. Targets are not limited to those involved in the mesh, over compensation by a defense can create favorable match-ups for outside receivers or leave running backs uncovered in the flat.
Facing a third and seven in the first quarter, the Cougs utilized the mesh to isolate the outside receiver and Connor Halliday was able to connect with Isiah Myers down the sideline to move the chains. Cal sets up with six on the line of scrimmage. No. 7 for Cal is head up on the center and will drop all the way back to the first down line with the snap. The end man on the line (bottom of screen) drops to a middle zone. The safety (top of screen) is already creeping up, showing his blitz before the ball is snapped. The other safety rolls to the middle of the field and the defense is effectively in a Cover 3 for the play. In a Cover 3, the corners are each responsible for an outside third of the field and a safety responsible for the middle third, underneath zones are split among the backers.
This means wide receiver Isiah Myers (top of screen) is essentially man on man with the corner who is about six yards off the ball and giving some space. Gino Simone and Brett Bartolone are the inside receivers (top and bottom of screen respectively) that will mesh a few yards past the line of scrimmage. The backer head up over Simone follows him inside, leaving Bartolone with a decent opportunity at a catch and run.
Brian Floyd covered some of Connor Halliday's problems (here), specifically how Connor has the tendency to lock on a receiver. Even though this result was positive, it looks like he does the same thing here, looking straight at Myers throughout his drop when he has a pretty favorable mesh developing. Halliday does get the ball out quickly, hitting the top of his three step and putting it where only Myers had a shot at catching it.
The mesh was an integral part of the WSU scoring drive in the third quarter. Picking up the drive on a third and eight from the WSU 28, the Cougs run the same play call just covered, but Cal doesn't bring the safety blitz. We see the linebacker drop to his middle zone and the back over the inside receiver (top of screen) follow him inside.
Again the quarterback, this time Jeff Tuel, likes the outside option better than the mesh underneath. The corner plays tighter coverage on wide receiver Gabe Marks than Myers faced and actually gets to Marks a little too early for the referee's liking. WSU picks up the first down on a pass interference call.
Sometimes a play can indicate how a defense will guard your routes in the future. The backer over the inside receiver (top of screen) has shown a few time he likes to follow the route inside. When the corners run deep with wide receivers and the backer flows inside, the flat is left essentially unguarded by a zone defender. It's difficult to tell who on the Cal defense is in man and who has zone responsibility. You can only guess there is some form of a zone coverage when you see defenders sit in open areas and pass receivers along.
This next route is a shallow cross that takes full advantage of the Cal zone defense not guarding the flat. Cal again starts a back at the line (No. 7) only to have him drop into coverage with the snap. Cal looks like they are playing a type of Cover 3, with both corners chasing the deep routes by the wide receivers and one safety dropping to centerfield. The other safety (top of screen) picks up the inside receiver Gino Simone, after the defender head up on him at the line blitzes.
The mesh occurs behind the line of scrimmage (lines looked a little complicated when I tried to draw it that way so I made it a little easier to see by moving it forward a bit) between running back Carl Winston and wide receiver Dominique Williams (bottom of screen). Bartolone (IR, bottom) and Marks (WR, top) both run deep taking a safety and corner with them. D. Williams cuts right down the line behind the Cal pass rush.
No. 7 for Cal drops to his middle zone and looks for Simone coming across. The backer on Bartolone passes him off as he runs deep, settles in his zone and picks up Winston coming out of the mesh to the flat (bottom of screen). With the outside blitz (top of screen) it's unclear who Cal expects to guard the flat along the WSU sideline, and this is probably just a right time right place play call by Coach Leach. The safety and No. 7 both pick up Simone who turns his route inside and settles directly in front of them.
On this drive we've seen the mesh used to target an isolated wide receiver and a receiver crossing in shallow field. From the Cal 11 yard line, on second and eight, the mesh was used to create space in between the corner and safety on a post route.
Kristoff Williams is the wide receiver to the bottom of the screen, the mesh occurs between receivers, Bartolone (bottom of screen) and Gabe Marks (top of screen). The Cal safeties have demonstrated a propensity to jump routes to the inside. On this play Cal runs man coverage with one free safety. The corners are playing a little further off, masking the man coverage as Cover 3. The corner at the top follows Marks through the mesh with Bartolone, who has a back chasing him as well. Marks comes out of the mesh into some open field and could've had a good chance at outrunning the defenders chasing him.
The corner guarding K. Williams retreats, giving him plenty of cushion. K. Williams cuts on his post route about seven yards downfield, beating the corner to the inside. The free safety stays in his spot, watching the mesh, and didn't see the corner was beat inside until it was too late. Tuel has the window he like likes and fires. The corner plays defense illegally, breaking up the touchdown and earning a flag.
A few plays later WSU goes back to the mesh to score their first touchdown in six quarters. The Cougs set up in their Ace formation on the nine yard line. Cal has five at the line of scrimmage in a dime defense. Nickel is when there are five defensive backs, dime means they have six defensive backs. Without getting too much into Cal's roster and determining who is a coverage linebacker and who is a defensive back, we'll just call this dime.
We can only guess what the Cal defensive responsibilities are in this alignment, and this is my best guess. Cal allocates two defensive backs to Isiah Myers (top of screen) in an over/under shading, with the inside back taking away the front of the endzone and the outside back dropping to cover anything deeper.
The mesh occurs between the inside receivers; Gino Simone (top of screen) and Brett Bartolone (bottom of screen). The safety (top of screen) looks to pick up Simone on his route inside, as does the other safety (bottom of screen). Both bite on the route and Simone does an excellent job screening. No. 53 doesn't follow Bartolone inside and instead floats back to the goal line. The backer at the line of scrimmage doesn't blitz, electing to drop into coverage and follow Winston out to the flat.
Tuel finds Bartolone right as he exits the mesh. Bartolone immediately turns upfield, rather than continue outside toward the linebacker in the flat, and beats the Cal defense to the endzone.
On this one drive WSU utilized the mesh to target some very different spaces on the field. The mesh can be used in a variety of ways within the Air Raid offense. How a team chooses to defend it can lead to open throwing windows for receivers other than the two involved in the mesh.
The wheel route has been successful for WSU this season and we've been able to highlight it before (Bartolone's touchdown against Oregon). Wazzu continued running the wheel with some success against Cal. Early in the second quarter, the Cougs faced third and short just outside the red zone. They line up in trips right and motion Bartolone across the field to Marquess Wilson's side (top of screen).
Cal is in man coverage with one free safety and rush six. The timing of the motion is incredibly important for this play. When the ball is snapped, Bartolone has to stall his motion at the hash and barely sells the out portion of the wheel. The spacing between him and Wilson wasn't tight enough to pick the defender or mandate a switch. The defender chasing Bartolone is easily able to close the distance. Tuel wisely throws this ball long and slightly out of bounds.
In the fourth quarter on the Cal six yard line the Cougs used the wheel to score for the second time in the game. It's becoming difficult to find a WSU offensive highlight that doesn't involve Brett Bartolone in some way.
Cal lines up in man coverage, giving quite a bit of space for a short field situation. On the bottom of the screen, the backer head up on Marks (IR) blitzes, leaving the safety responsible for Marks. Both safeties are closer to the line that the corners outside of them, this is to take away slants by outside receivers, but also allows them to follow the wheel underneath the corner. Bartolone still beats his man and has a step on him heading to the sideline.
This is a great throw by Jeff Tuel and a great catch by Bartolone. The throw has just the right amount of touch to go over the defender and leads Bartolone to the sideline. Bartolone does an excellent job finding the ball, flattening his route and makes a highlight diving catch.
While the offense hasn't "clicked" yet and the execution has been inconsistent, the Cougs are starting to nail down some individual concepts. During the bye week, Coach Leach and the Washington State offense has had some time to refine their execution and prepare for a game against Stanford, where all the individual pieces of the Air Raid might finally start coming together.