After spending the last week looking at the nuts and bolts of the spread offense, this is where it all comes together. WSU runs a form of the spread offense, but it's not completely understood by man fans. On Saturdays, we see an offense that runs out two tight ends and a no-huddle moving at a snail's pace. Is this still a spread?
The short answer is it should be. Unfortunately, what we've seen since Wulff arrived hasn't been the ideal form of his scheme. In 2008, the personnel didn't know the playbook, leading to the no-huddle being thrown out. In 2009, the players were more comfortable with the scheme but with a line that couldn't block, implementing it became near impossible.
What we've done so far is look at an ideal spread offense. The posts over the last week reflect what we should see out of the Cougs this year. Whether or not it actually happens depends on Jeff Tuel and the offensive line.
Formations and personnel
I brought up the different looks a spread can give because the Cougs utilize those different looks. We're likely not going to see empty sets with 5 wide receivers very often, with WSU instead opting to use two tight ends or 3 and 4 wideout sets. A two TE set gives the Cougs the ability to spread the field using the seams, or keeping them in to block in the running game. While it may seem like a power formation, the different number of looks WSU can give out of the formation makes it versatile enough to confuse a defense.
When the Cougs do split out multiple receivers, they can do a variety of different things. The screens we covered -- bubble screens and jailbreak screens -- are good setup plays, while also doubling as an outside run. If the defense cheats on a quick pass, Tuel can beat them deep. If they're giving up the quick hitters, Tuel will gladly take an easy 5-6 yards a play. The same play can be run out of any formation, giving the Cougs what should be a dynamic offense in formations alone.
The run game
The running game was atrocious in 2009. Averaging 70 yards a game on the ground let opposing defenses sit back and play the pass, while not having to worry about getting burned by the run game as much. With an offensive line unable to block anyone, and key injuries in the backfield, the Cougs became one-dimensional, the worst thing a team can do in the spread. Without at least attempting to have balance -- besides the other obvious problems -- there was little chance the Cougs could succeed.
With James Montgomery back and healthy, and a talented stable of young backs, the Cougs are looking to jump start a pedestrian run game in 2010. Between Montgomery, Chantz Staden, and freshman Rickey Galvin, the offense has a variety of different looks they can provide, showing speed around the end or power up the middle. The ability to keep defenses honest and not allowing them to key on the pass should open up the pass game and give Tuel some room to work.
The passing game
This is where Tuel comes in. In both the running and passing game, the offensive line has to be able to block, though the techniques differ between the two. In the passing game, the onus is on Jeff Tuel to march this team down the field.
With a patchwork line, the Cougs were forced to leave TEs and RBs in the backfield to block. Going with a max protection scheme helps keep the quarterback upright -- of course it didn't work well for WSU -- but takes away the biggest weapon of the scheme; spreading the field. With the line coming together, and everyone healthy so far, the offense should be able to send more receivers into the pass pattern, giving more than enough options for Jeff Tuel.
Jeff Tuel needs to do two things to make this offense fire: read the defense correctly and take shots downfield. The former is important for the multitude of reasons we've discussed throughout the week. Being able to recognize coverage pre-snap, adjust the play when necessary, and make smart throws during live action are imperative. That year of experience he had last year -- playing some of the tougher Pac-10 teams -- should pay off in this case. There really is no other way to simulate what happens pre-snap and how teams disguise coverage until a quarterback sees it in action.
The latter point -- taking shots downfield -- was one of the biggest reasons Paul Wulff decided to play Tuel last year. Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael just weren't getting it done in that regard, and Tuel showed the presence and poise needed to spread the field. This offense absolutely must spread the defense by not always settling for the underneath route. A mix of passes, hitting all the different levels we talked about, will keep defenses honest and allow Tuel to pick apart coverages easier.
If the line protects and Tuel progresses like we expect, the offense should be much improved. Tuel has the weapons, he just needs the protection.
Remember that point about Tuel being able to read the defenses and diagnose what he sees pre-snap? This is also where it comes in handy. The sidelines are going to call the plays in while the offense is at the line of scrimmage. If Tuel understands not only the playbook, but what he sees in front of him, the offense should be moving at a quicker clip than last year.
That doesn't mean the Cougs will be tearing up and down the field with the pedal to the metal. The form of the no-huddle WSU is running isn't built for speed, but we all can recognize that last year's version wasn't adequate. Picking up the tempo while exploiting the mismatches the defense gives the Cougs is what Wulff and offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy want to see in their scheme.
The health and ability of the offensive line to block are keys that can't be stressed enough for the 2010 version of the Cougar offense. In the last two years, we haven't been able to see the ideal version of the scheme, whether it was due to a lack of playbook knowledge or protection. In 2010, WSU returns a more seasoned Jeff Tuel while getting plenty of injured starters back.
It's just the preseason, but the expectations for the Cougar offense are high. In Wulff's third -- and Tuel's second -- year, we should finally see the kind of offense we all expected out of the gate. The series of posts about the spread illustrated what we hope to see this year. Whether or not it happens remains to be seen.