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WSU Helps Jeff Tuel Succeed With Packages, Play Calling

I've been waiting all week to write this, and finally found a shred of time on Friday.

We made a pretty big deal after the SMU game about what we thought were some serious flaws in offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy's play calling. You can read Brian's entire take here, but the essence is that WSU wasn't using its personnel effectively (usually employing power formations) and was predictable in its play calling (runs on first and second down, passes on third and long). 

Obviously that changed a lot on Saturday. The team came out in 3- and 4-wide sets and chucked it around early and often. I want to take a look at what effect that had on Jeff Tuel's performance.

First, let's look at the opening three games. It's tough to know exactly how many passes were being called on which down when looking at the team stats, because NCAA statistics do not chart sacks as passing plays -- they are recorded as rushing plays, as are plays that are clearly designed passes that the quarterback turns into a rushing gain. So you have to make a little bit of a guesstimation to when trying to figure out what the ratio of run-to-pass is.

Here's our best estimate of the ratio through the first three games:

Overall 55% 45%
1st Down 65% 35%
2nd Down 50% 50%
3rd Down 40% 60%

It's always nice when the stats back up what your eyes are anecdotally telling you. The team had become about as predictable as a football team can be on each down. And when your team is rushing the ball for less than three yards per carry, you can see why the run/pass ratio gets so skewed on third down. Predictably, Tuel's effectiveness as a passer was dropping with each successive down:

Overall 91 50 54.9% 700 5 1 7.7 135.49
1st Down 27 17 63.0% 277 2 1 10.3 166.17
2nd Down 30 17 56.7% 206 2 0 6.9 136.35
3rd Down 30 15 50.0% 217 1 0 7.2 121.76

Now, compare that to his performance on Saturday, with 3- and 4-wide formations (these percentages are accurate, as I charted them myself from the play-by-play):

Overall 25.8% 74.2%
1st Down 35.7% 64.3%
2nd Down 23.8% 76.2%
3rd Down 7.7% 92.3%

Uh, yeah. Quite the difference. Here's how Tuel did passing with that changed philosophy:

Overall 37 24 64.9% 222 1 3 6.0
1st Down 15 11 73.3% 96 1 0 6.4
2nd Down 14 7 50.0% 61 0 2 4.4
3rd Down 8 6 75.0% 65 0 1 8.1

Simply put, he was awesome on first down -- and that's due both to his performance and to the play calling. We had advocated for quick, short passes designed to make use of the athleticism and quickness at wideout (while simultaneously covering for a lacking ground game and subpar pass protection), and that's exactly what we got. No, the 6.4 yards per attempt isn't eye-popping, but when you call passes on 15 first downs and average 6.4 yards -- more than double what you were averaging on first down runs in the first three games -- that's a huge improvement. 

Even when you factor in the passes that were called on first down that ended with scrambles or sacks, it's still 5.7 yards per play. Football Outsiders defines a "successful" first down play as one that gains more than 50 percent or more of the required yardage for a first down; the Cougs were above that average on first down passing plays, which thankfully made up nearly 65 percent of first downs.

And while Tuel didn't experience great success on second down passes -- Brian and I were talking about it, and he seems to remember them taking a number of shots downfield on second down; I don't really remember, but that's one plausible theory -- the combined success between first and second down allowed the offense to get into "third-and-manageable" a lot more than it had in the first three games.

The result? Five of Tuel's six completions on third down went for first downs. That 8.1 yards per attempt is simply outstanding.

A huge amount of credit has to go to Todd Sturdy for modifying the offense. We criticized him pretty hard, but credit where credit is due, even if the changes came a lot later than we wanted them. He put the keys in the hands of his young quarterback for better or worse. Most of the time, it was for the better. The passing success even set up some success running the ball on first down; the first called run on first down wasn't until the seventh first down of the game, and the Cougs ended up averaging 5.3 yards on first down carries in the first half.

Again, progress.

Of course, there were some real awful throws in there, too, whether it was Tuel's fault or the receivers' faults. Through it all, though, there's little doubt that Tuel and his receivers learned some valuable lessons on Saturday. And I think the coaches did, too.

I wish it hadn't taken so long for them to take the reigns off these guys, but now that they have, there simply can't be any going back. I'm not sure I want to see the pass ratios as heavy on second and third down as they were against USC -- I'd like to see each down be around that 65 percent/35 percent pass/run mark -- but I'd rather this team be thrown out there to either sink or swim with their best weapons. There will be some ugly moments, as there were on Saturday, but they will diminish as the season goes on.

This offense still is going to struggle at times until it can get some semblance of a running game going -- despite the success in the first half at times, the team ended up gaining just 46 yards on 16 designed runs ... an average of 2.88 yards. Still terrible.

However, as defenses are forced to respect the pass more, things should open up a bit. Additionally, the coaches need to take a long, hard look at who's carrying the ball. James Montgomery looks like a shell of his former self, while Logwone Mitz has made the most of his limited touches. Chantz Staden also looked good before his injury, and is precisely the kind of running back who should be able to succeed in single-back formations with the defense spread out, as he can hit the hole before the spread out defenders can recover.

But the bottom line is that there was far more to be happy about on Saturday, and it should give you something to look forward to against UCLA. Sure, there was a little bit of the element of surprise against the Trojans, given the dramatic shift in personnel and play calling tendencies, so there might be a little bit less success against the Bruins. But the seeds for dramatic improvement have been sewn. Let's hope the coaching staff sticks with it, even if it hits some more rough patches along the way.