One of the big question marks heading into this season was the offensive line, which was tasked with replacing 60 percent of a unit that performed better in 2013 than it had in years.
With just a couple of games to go, it appears the unit has held up pretty well. Bill Connelly has devised some offensive line metrics to try and isolate the play of those five guys, and while it's hardly an exact science, they do illuminate the strengths and continuing weaknesses of the unit.
First, the strengths. Television commentators usually aren't great at looking beyond counting stats, and they see the Cougs have allowed 24 sacks -- 88th out of 127 teams. But when you factor in both the frequency with which WSU drops back to pass and the Cougars' competition, you get Adjusted Sack Rate, where the Cougars rank 14th nationally.
Our podcast returns: The CougCenter Hour
There are just two games to go in the football season and the Cougs don't have anything to play for. Except beating the Huskies. So we got that goin' for us.
I'm no expert, but being in the top 15 percent of a given population seems pretty good! Granted, a not-insignificant number of the passes WSU throws are gone before the other team can mount a rush, but that certainly doesn't explain all of it.
On standard downs -- roughly defined as 1st-and-10 or 2nd/3rd/4th-and-manageable distance -- WSU is allowing sacks on 2.9 percent of dropbacks, 27th nationally. But when WSU gets itself into obvious passing situations, that number shoots up 6.5 percent, 48th nationally.
Now, that's still not terrible, but it's also significantly worse, and I think there's actually a pretty good chance this says more about the true talent level of the line with regards to pass blocking than any of these other stats, for this reason: When you're "on schedule," all the passes are in play, including screens and quick, short passes; but when you need eight or more yards, the defense can pin its ears back, and the routes take longer to develop. In that kind of a scenario, where the line is being asked to execute a more "traditional" pass protection, the line is pretty average.
For this reason, staying "on schedule" almost certainly is going to be a key on Saturday against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are notoriously aggressive in attacking the opposing quarterback, and Falk could find himself buried under a barrage of rushers -- despite his elusiveness -- if ASU truly is able to just turn it loose.
What about run blocking? Predictably, it looks pretty awful. In a metric where credit for run success is delineated between the line and running back (admittedly a bit of a murky science), WSU ranks 123rd in Adjusted Line Yards -- with similar rankings for both standard (123rd) and passing downs (107th). If you don't like the fancy maths, here are a couple of easy ones: Stuff Rate, where WSU ranks 115th in the percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, and Opportunity Rate, where WSU ranks 121st in runs of at least five yards.
I don't think anyone would disagree that it jives with what we've seen: WSU has been poor running the ball.
What's interesting, though, is this: WSU actually is 64th in Power Success Rate -- the percentage of 3rd/4th-and-short runs that are converted into first downs. (Also includes 1st/2nd-and-short-to-goal runs.) When WSU has needed to run for a couple of yards, they've at least been average at producing it. Progress?
Anyway, just thought these were some interesting things to pass along in advance of Saturday's game. I know this season has been disappointing on the whole, but this offensive line -- which started the season with two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen, and has since worked in a couple of different guys -- has been, at the very least, serviceable. And that's probably a conservative assessment, given they've been very good at what they're asked to do the most, but I suppose some would want to make the running game a major issue.
Regardless, there's potential here for a unit that is still growing together. What began the year as a major question mark could be a major strength as soon as 2015.