If Roy Manning’s tweets haven’t gotten you fired up for the 2016 season, maybe remembering that the WSU defense gave up one passing touchdown over their last six games will. Chewing on a mix of Manning’s enthusiastic twittering and Brian Anderson’s thoughts on Grinch’s defense from the superb season preview got me wanting to take a look at some of the reasons why I’m really excited about the 2016 defense.
I’m under no false pretenses that we’re going to suddenly have a return to the Palouse Posse. However, this coaching staff seems to have chosen an identity of being fast as hell and taking the ball away. Digging into some of the data, it’s clear that the team really bought into that mantra in 2015. Brian touched on how the defense made big improvements in cutting down long plays and creating more turnovers, and I was curious as to what implications that had for the offense.
In 2014 WSU was 127th in the country in short field drives, having only 3 percent of its possessions start on the 50 or in the opponent’s territory. I don’t think you can distill the reasons for that down to one factor or stat, but I do think WSU’s lack of turnovers played a big part in giving the offense a long field to play with on virtually every drive.
Below are two box plots that show the percent of short field drives for each team in FBS and where they landed compared to their peers. If they’re at the left whisker they were a bad outlier, and if they’re on the right whisker they were a good outlier. WSU went from last in the Pac-12 in 2014 to fourth in 2015 in forced turnovers per game, and I think that played a big part in the 12 percent increase in short-field drives, which saw the Cougs jump from 127th to 24th in that category.
Another way to give your offense shorter fields is to limit big plays, and the Coug/Speed D saw nice progress there in 2015. The below chart shows where WSU ranked in each season, starting in 2010, in percentage of plays over 20+ yards. While they were still leaky in giving up plays of 10+ and 30+ yards (you can change the length of plays by using the “Select Stat” option) I think getting more speed on the field helped them reduce the amount of gains that can put the defense in situations where it’s more likely to give up points. And if they did force a turnover, put the offense in a better spot to take advantage.
There are still concerns around getting off the field on third down (11th in Pac-12 last season) and defending the run, but Luke Falk and the offense don’t need them to be dominant for this to be a successful season. I’ve seen a lot of Twitter talk on how often defenses make their big jump in year two under a new defensive coordinator (UW is a decent example of this) and while there is still a lot of “bend, don’t break” with this defense, they seem to have picked an identity that pairs well with the Air Raid.
Lastly, if you’re looking to nerd out, here is a chart that lets you cycle through where WSU ranks in the Pac-12 in a ton of different stats since 2010. I can’t wait for Saturday and to see what Alex Grinch has cooked up for Eastern. Did you find anything interesting in the graphs here and what has you excited about the defense?