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Analyzing the 2015 WSU football defense

A few novel metrics provide both a clear picture of where the WSU defense improved last season, and where we should expect to see improvement this fall.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State took a major step forward defensively in 2015 under new Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch. There wasn’t much good statistically about the 2014 Cougar defense he inherited, just a lot of promising athletes and a few really solid leaders. It was at the point where simply getting to average would be a massive improvement.

In 2014, the Coug defense was well below average in the Holy Quadrinity statistics. These are what commentators will often reference when talking about how well a team defends. They’ve become antiquated for most analytical evaluations, but you can get a pretty decent broad stroke opinion of a team by looking at the national rank.

Raw data is given with the national rank for each statistic, which are per game averages. WSU climbed out of the cellar and into “average-ish” range in three out of the four stats. Knocking about 10 points off their per game average was substantial — we talked a little about scoring defense, and where we thought the Cougs could end up before the season (28 PPG and 80th in S&P+) and overall, the Cougs moved from 95th in S&P+ in 2014 to 74th after last season.

The defensive improvement was substantial in two statistical aspects: Limiting explosive plays and increasing turnovers.

A little while back, Jeff took a look at the number of explosive plays WSU had given up over the years, finding that the Cougs cut the number of explosive pass plays about in half last season. Wazzu gave up the 14th fewest amount of pass plays over 20 yards in the nation last season (31), after allowing a pass over 25 yards on just over eight percent of all pass attempts in 2014 (58 total, rank: 125th).

Former coordinator Mike Breske would heavily involve the strong safety in run support. This worked out fine when that person was All-American First Round Draft Pick Stud Wrecker Of Shop Deone Bucannon. But without that kind of transcendent player in 2014, the scheme sort of fell apart at the back end.

Coach Grinch has found a way to effectively balance the run-stopping, hard-hitting capabilities of a strong safety in Shalom Luani with the protection needed over the top. This is mostly through disguised coverages — Washington State was referenced anonymously by other PAC-12 coaches multiple times as being one of the toughest defenses to game plan against for that very reason — but also through really strong corner play.

Combined, the secondary defensed 14.8 percent (50 total) of all pass attempts they faced, right around the conference average of 16 percent. In 2014, the Cougs only intercepted six percent of their passes defensed, and normal is 21-24 percent. That was extremely below normal. So much so, that whatever else was going badly with skill or scheme, they were also horrifically unlucky. Last season, Wazzu picked off 26.5 percent of their defensed passes and got back to a normal turnover margin.


Data may look a little differently than found elsewhere. Sacks were not counted as rush attempts or pass attempts, and special teams (field goal, punt, punt-return, kick-off, kick-return) were removed from the play total entirely. I can elaborate on my reasoning in the comments if need be, but essentially this was meant to chart defensive plays.

The table above is mostly tracking results on a per play basis. The conference average in each metric is given in the blue row, with the difference in WSU's result from the average in the red row below it.

WSU faced about an average number of defensive plays per game as the rest of the conference, and you can see the more up-tempo offenses force more plays on their defense. The higher the “Plays/TD” the better, and the lower the “Plays/TO” the better. These are alternative ways to visualize explosive plays and turnover margin, respectively, and offer a metric with a little more variance.

Yards Per Play (YPP) has become the metric de jour for a lot of people. Overall, WSU was right at the conference average, with a little lower Yards Per Pass Attempt (YPA) and a little higher Yards Per Rush (YPR). They trailed only UCLA in Yards Per Completion (YPC).

The Cougs’ 6.1 percent explosive plays was behind only UCLA and Utah, two very formidable defenses. And their 12.3 percent negative plays — plays that resulted in negative yardage — was only behind blitz-happy Arizona State. We hammered Bill Connelly’s “Havoc Rate” statistic all season (plays that either recorded a tackle for loss, pass break up, interception or forced a fumble), where WSU ranked 34th nationally in overall havoc, and 16th nationally in linebacker specific havoc rate.


Below is a chart which splits defensive statistics up by field position. The PAC-12 Average was calculated and given in the blue graphic. Comparing the two, WSU was really close to the conference average in just about every category, trading a few pass game explosives for run game explosives and managing to limit plays within their 30 yard line.

Imagine this chart laid out like a football field, with the opposing offense moving from left to right. The field is arbitrarily split into three sections, from the opponent goal line to their 30 yard line, between the 30 yard lines, and from the 30 to the WSU goal line.


One aspect in particular really stands out in the drive data: WSU didn’t force nearly enough 3-and-outs. They are pretty far off the conference average, which translates to about one a game behind the other teams. The Cougs were 107th in third down conversion rate (44.5 percent), which could have a little something to do with that...and opponents got a first down 82.3 percent of the time they caught the ball on third or fourth down. That’s probably “keeping things in front of you" a little too cautiously.

WSU was excellent in the red zone. While a little more than an average number of drives breached the 20 yard line, way less of those that did actually put points on the board. Opponents were 15-of-20 on field goals too, so there wasn’t any funny business really fudging the stat line. The Cougs had the “don’t break” part down pat last season.


Part of the reason you look at these sorts of stats is to get an idea for How sustainable is this? Washington State was remarkably average in just about every defensive category last year, and just that little bump up from where they’d been played a massive role in winning nine games instead of four or five. The bar shouldn’t be average, so where could we expect them to go from here?

With Marcellus Pippeins and Darrien Molton both returning at corner, and Charleston White transitioning to either nickel with Parker Henry or strong safety next to Shalom Luani, WSU will probably have the most athletic and skilled secondary they’ve put on the field in years. That production shouldn’t be expected to drop off, and we should actually see them increase the pass break-ups per incomplete pass (how many incompletions were because the secondary broke them up) well above 31.8 percent (74th nationally). As that goes up, so would the interceptions, especially with all the new quarterbacks in the league this year.

The strength that was the linebackers last season will transition to a group with little experience. Peyton Pelluer returns as the stalwart up the middle, but the dynamic rush end position will have to be replaced, as will team leader Jeremiah Allison on the weak side. Good news is WSU has recruited a lot of really exciting athletes at linebacker; the bad news, of course, is they’re all a little green. Replacing Ivan McLennon and Kache Palacio’s production (11 combined sacks, 19 TFLs) will be real tough, especially in maintaining that havoc rate and negative play stat.

Hercules Mata’afa moves from stud super-freshman to every snap contributor at end, replacing Darryl Paulo (who led the team with 13.5 TFLs), and Daniel Ekuale looks to replace the absolute force that was Destiny Vaeao. Mata’afa could easily exceed Paulo’s backfield stats from last season, but it remains to be seen how well these guys can stop the run, which had a tendency to get a little out of hand at points during the last season.

Overall, the defense should look and perform pretty similarly to how it did last season. If they can work on increasing the number of 3-and-outs and get a handle on long running plays, they might turn into one of the better units in the conference.