Sports Illustrated came out with its Top 25 yesterday, and while WSU being ranked No. 18 is fun (try not to laugh too much at No. 7), much more interesting to me is something embedded within the team preview: An opposing coach’s take on the Cougs.
SI has been doing this kind of stuff for years, giving people anonymity in exchange for candid thoughts, and I find it fascinating because nobody else is able to get this kind of stuff on the record.
I suppose people talk to SI because the publication has a great reputation of protecting sources, and it’s generally futile to try and figure out who said what, given that it’s often anonymous players, scouts or executives who are being quoted, and they are either too numerous or too obscure to pin down.
However, in this case, I think we can make some educated guesses about who might be the one offering his opinion on WSU. (Because, why not?)
Before we read what he said, here’s my working assumption: It’s someone who either played WSU last season or who will play WSU this season — given the specific nature of the comments, you figure it’s someone who has taken a close look at them, and generally only people who have played or are going to play you are going to do that.
Now, let’s take a look at the comments:
“It’s the same pass-happy, Air Raid offense that coach Mike Leach has always run. He’s all about leverage of the defenders. He’s going to run his spacing routes and then his crossing routes. He puts a lot in the receivers’ hands—they have to read the leverage of the guys covering them. They do a damn good job and the quarterback knows exactly where to throw it.
“[Junior] Luke Falk is probably more talented than some of Leach’s past signal-callers ...”
OK, here’s our first clue. This sounds like someone who has some context for Mike Leach and his offense throughout the years, which means it’s probably someone who’s been around college football for a while.
“... but it’s hard to know because he doesn’t read anything, he just runs through progressions.”
Clue No. 2: This person doesn’t have a lot of respect for the Air Raid — calling the offense “pass-happy” seems a bit like a pejorative, and saying “(Falk) doesn’t read anything, he just runs through progressions” implies that what Falk does is somehow inferior. Perhaps this coach is more of a pro-style advocate?
“Falk took way too many hits last year, and I’m sure he will again this season, but protection has always been a huge issue for Leach’s quarterbacks. Falk and his receivers are so quick throwing the ball that it talks you out of blitzing them a lot.”
I’m not sure there’s much of a clue here ... but the juxtaposition of these two statements is pretty humorous. The interesting thing is that WSU was middle of the road last season in sacks per pass attempt — 51st nationally — and actually finished 31st in 2014. Of course, the raw number of hits on the QB is higher just because of the volume of pass attempts, which I suppose would potentially put this in the category of “more of a pro-style advocate.”
“The teams that hit Falk the most last season did it using three-man rushes and dropping eight in coverage, which made him hold the ball longer. [Senior wide receiver] Gabe Marks is dangerous outside, and their inside possession receivers do exactly what’s expected: catch the ball, get whacked and carry on.
Three statements here, all of which are fair and two of which are not particularly revealing. However, maybe there’s something to the comment about Marks being dangerous.
Defensively, their strength has always been their big linemen, and they’ve got another budding star in [sophomore] end Hercules Mata’afa. Senior safety Shalom Luani isn’t great in coverage, so you want to attack him, but he’s a sure-tackling, heavy hitter.
OK, this might be our best clue yet: The observation about Luani might be revealing if we think about which teams appeared to try and isolate Luani in coverage.
If you can run and make them pack the box, I’d take matchups all day against their corners in man coverage, which they don’t play much.
It’s true that WSU mostly played zone last season — a major factor in drastically reducing explosive plays, which was the main driving factor behind the defensive improvement. That said, I find it interesting that he’s not projecting improvement there with what was a really young set of corners.
More revealing? The idea of trying to establish the run to make WSU bring guys into the box in order to create favorable passing matchups.
They went 9–4 last season but I thought the whole Pac-12 was down, so I’m not sure they were much better than when they went 3–9 in 2014. This year they might be an even better team, but they might not have as good a record.”
Well that’s certainly dismissive.
When you put it all together, you know who it sounds a lot like to me?
UCLA coach Jim Mora.
- Coached against WSU last year or is going to this year? Check.
- Doesn’t think much of the Air Raid, or Falk? A guy who spent most of his time coaching in the NFL would seem to be more likely to see the Air Raid as gimmicky. The only question mark here would be the inclination to think the person has been around the college game for a while, but Mora’s been at UCLA for four years, so that might be explain the initial comment — he’s seen three WSU QBs in that time. Additionally, Falk got hit a bunch against the Bruins (obviously), and the Bruins have hit all of WSU’s QBs repeatedly over the years. Also, despite the game-winning TD throw, Falk didn’t put up great numbers against UCLA — 331 yards on 53 attempts.
- Is a pro-style offense advocate? Guess who is switching to a power-based pro-style offense this season?
- Thinks Marks is dangerous? Marks had 92 yards and a pair of TDs — including the game winner — Against UCLA. The coach also essentially said in that same part that the inside receivers weren’t anything special; none of the inside receivers had a particularly strong game against the Bruins, and River Cracraft was out with an injury.
- Doesn’t think much of Luani’s coverage ability, but respects his ability to hit and tackle? UCLA seemed to target Luani in coverage, and given how much he preaches physicality, Mora seems like the type of guy who would love a safety’s ability to light up a ball-carrier.
- Prefers running the ball to set up the pass? See above.
- Is skeptical of WSU’s success last year? Given all his whining after losing to the Cougs, would it shock you if Mora believed he got beat by an inferior team that wasn’t as good as its record?
There were some other coaches who came to mind for me. David Shaw was one, but the tone just doesn’t strike me as him. One dark horse candidates I thought of? Idaho coach Paul Petrino.
Point: Petrino likely has done a lot of studying of WSU this offseason in preparation for their week three matchup in September.
Counterpoint: I’m not sure he’d have thought much about the strength of the Pac-12 overall.
Another guy I thought of is Dennis Erickson, who is noted for studying anyone and everything for ideas, would certainly have a historical handle on Leach, and is known to speak in the type of candid tone in which this coach spoke.
Those are my ideas. You got a better one?