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The scores have improved, but how has the team improved?

Heading into this football season, it was obvious that the Cougs had a long way to go to become competitive after a historically terrible 2008.  An average margin of negative 37.0 against FBS opponents meant that even dramatic improvements would not guarantee any wins.  So far in 2009, the scores have definitely gotten closer, with the average margin down to negative 22.4.  Two touchdowns a game is significant, but how exactly has it happened and can some credit be given to Paul Wulff and his coaching staff? Take a look at these statistics comparing the 2008 Cougs (against FBS competition) and the 2009 Cougs:

2008 WSU vs. FBS Opponents     2008 FBS Opponents
2009 WSU 2009 Opponents
PPG 9.75 46.75 15.0 37.4
YPC 2.4 5.8 2.4 5.7
YPP 3.5 6.7 4.3 7.3
TO/game 2.8 0.8 2.3 3.0
T.O.P. 27:23 32.37 27:34 32:26
Red Zone Scoring% 72% 88% 74% 74%
Penalties/game 7.0 6.6 7.3 7.5


There are a lot of statistical similarities between this season and last.  The run offense and run defense are almost identical in yards per carry averages.  The time of possession has not changed at all and the penalties are similar.  The offense has definitely improved, averaging almost a yard better per play.  However, that is negated by the fact that the defense is even worse per play than it was last year (Who knew that was possible?).

So the defense still can't stop anybody and the offense still struggles to move the ball.  Why are the scores improving?  The two statistics that jump out as having had the most impact in Washington State's shrunken margins of defeat are turnovers and red zone defense. 

The Cougs have gone from turning the ball over twice more than their opponents per game in 2008 to having an advantage in the turnover department in 2009.   Some of that can be attributed to luck, WSU has been able to pick up 12 of the 19 opponent fumbles this season versus getting only 2 out of 16 fumbles last season.  The positive there is that they have already forced more fumbles in eight games this season than the twelve against FBS competition last year.  The defense is also making more plays in the passing game.  Two of those plays, interceptions by Myron Beck and Alex Hoffman-Ellis, have played a huge role in the scoring average jump for WSU.  There is no doubt that these guys are visibly stronger than last season, and that factor in forcing turnovers cannot be ignored.

The defense in the red zone can be directly related to the drop in scoring by opponents.  The Cougs have already made as many red zone stops (nine) as they did all of last year against FBS competition, and that is in 38 less opportunities.  It has been brought up in the past on this site and most people would agree that the tackling on the defense has much improved.  Solid tackling in the red zone can cure a lot of problems.  Washington State is clearly slower than most of the offenses it has faced, but speed isn't as important in the red zone, and the ability to tackle soundly is essential for a "bend-don't-break" defense.

So the Cougs are a little luckier, a little stronger, and a little better at tackling than last year.  This has been good for a two touchdown improvement.  Head Coach Paul Wulff and his staff have taken a lot of criticism this season, but some credit has to be given to them on those last two points.  Wulff has preached the importance of better conditioning and mentioned several times that he was shocked at the lack of fundamentals he saw in spring camp last season.  Maybe these improvements can give some hope that if this staff can get their players on the field and build some depth in recruiting, this dark era in Cougar football can soon end.

Of course, they could go out and lose 63-7 this weekend and make me look silly.