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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs Idaho Vandals

Off The Field issues take a backseat to On The Field play...for one day this week.

Idaho v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Washington State looks to get into the win column for the first time this season when they welcome the Vandals from across the Palouse into Martin Stadium this Saturday. The game kicks off at 11 AM (PST) and will be broadcast on PAC-12 Networks.

Let’s get this out of the way.

This team is a mess off the field. All sports — and especially football — are allergic to “distractions”: Any events or media narratives that don’t directly relate to the on-field (/court/rink/track/diamond) competition. The Cougars threw the Clariton in the trash and stood in a flowering hayfield all week.

If that’s what you want to learn about, here’s the abridged version of the amusement park ride that made us all sick this week:

The Pullman Police Department closed their investigation of the incident outside Dominos and are recommending a 2nd-degree assault charge against Shalom Luani.

Coach Leach questioned the team’s toughness, comparing them to a “JC softball team” and insinuated their problems are indicative of an entire generation. Which the internet loved.

Another starting player was arrested for another summer incident know one knew happened.

Coach Leach then used an after-practice interview to issue a rather uncharacteristically prepared and succinct set of remarks, essentially questioning how only football players were being arrested for incidents that would conceivably involve culpable non-football playing students. This turned into “Police Targeting WSU Football Players” headlines in national media. ESPN’s Outside The Lines did a segment on it.

This prompted a meeting between WSU’s President Kirk Schultz, Athletic Director Bill Moos, and the Pullman PD Police Chief Gary Jenkins.

Another starting player was then expelled from the University for his alleged role in a summer brawl that left a student with a broken jaw.

The Pullman PD is announcing via press conference their conclusions in that summer brawl investigation today at 2 PM. You can watch it live on their Facebook page.

Just in case losing to Eastern wasn’t demoralizing enough. And dropping a winnable game in Boise wasn’t frustrating enough.

WSU clearly didn’t steer into the skid this week.

Idaho v Washington
Paul Petrino
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Idaho head coach Paul Petrino was a quarterback for Carroll College in Helena, Montana. After college, Petrino immediately got into coaching and spent the majority of the next decade coaching wide receivers at Idaho, Utah State, and Louisville with his brother, Bobby, who promoted him to Offensive Coordinator in 2003. Paul Petrino followed his brother to the NFL and coached receivers for the Atlanta Falcons during their truncated visit in 2007, before returning to college in 2008 and coordinating the Arkansas offense and quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Idaho has adopted the Petrino spread offense, now in its fourth year under the head coach. He’s won six games in the previous three years with the Vandals.

Cougar fans should have a sense of familiarity watching the Vandal defense on Saturday. Mike Breske found a landing spot on Idaho’s staff at Defensive Coordinator after being let go by Mike Leach in 2014.

Breske runs a 3-4 with a “Buck” outside linebacker that is a versatile pass rush and flat coverage athlete. The secondary will usually play asymmetric coverage, meaning the coverage is different to the field and boundary side of the ball.

The corners and safety will play “Mix” to the field side. Mix (elsewhere called “Blue Cover 2”) has the corner play outside leverage on WR1 (the receiver closest to the sideline) and reads WR2 (the next receiver in). If both WR1 and WR2 release vertical, they man-up. If WR1 goes vertical, the corner sits and reads bubble/flat for WR2. Mix is given with a ‘stirring the pot’ hand signal from the sideline.

They’ll play “Cloud” to the boundary, which is your garden variety Cover 2 and is signaled with an ‘open bear claw’ from the sideline.

“Box” is their man coverage adjustment, given with a ‘diamond’ hand signal.

Wazzu fans will remember Breske can be very aggressive with stunts and blitzes up front; Mike = Middle linebacker, Sam = Strong side linebacker, Will = Weak side linebacker.

  • “MOB” – Mike or Buck, they decide who goes
  • “SNAP” – Will opposite the RB, Sam fires in B gap
  • “SMASH SWITCH” – Sam and Mike blitz from wide side of field, DL longsticks, Sam crash down
  • “SLAM” – Sam and Mike in A and B Gaps to strong side (field if balanced formation strength), DE is lever in 50s shade
  • “BENCH” – Buck drops to 3-point at LOS, stays Hot to WR2

What has me concerned about Idaho

Distractions: See above. This sort of Off The Field (TM) stuff surrounding a program can either unify the locker room or completely derail whatever they try to do on the field. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Regression: Luke Falk has sort of returned to the same problems we saw him overcome at the beginning of last season. But his YPA is the same / completion percentage is better -- true, but those stats (propped up by a few deep balls) are hiding some real issues he’s having falling in love with check-downs. This offense wasn’t built to go 57 yards in 12 plays.

F (-ing) inconsistency: Starting running back and supposed ‘between-the-tackles’ power rusher Gerard Wicks was left off the depth chart this week after picking up nine yards on two carries the week before. The other backs, Jamal Morrow and James Williams, managed 32 yards on 12 carries.

Don’t get distracted by whether there were three or four down-lineman; it’s the total number in the box that matters (which was usually five), but there’s an obvious inconsistency with 1 - getting into the right running play against the front that lines up against them (for instance, outside zone right at the backer who is their leading tackler and playing in space outside the box is not as good of an idea as running inside zone away from him), 2 - blocking it correctly, and 3 - running aggressively enough to make the blocks right.

This team is capable of having a solid run-game and they haven’t proved it yet.

Effort: Idaho got their Boise State rivalry ripped away from them and are clutching at whatever they can at the FBS-level while it’s still available to them. They came out unafraid of Washington and gave the Huskies a few series of really competitive football. Wazzu is going to get their best shot.

Oh and this happened after the last time Petrino met Leach on the football field.

Theo Lawson, Idaho football beat writer for the Lewiston Tribune, stopped by to give us his insights.

What are you most confident in about the Idaho Vandals?

“The passing game. Even against the tougher Power Five schools, the Vandals are able to air it out with some level of success. Last week, they were able to pitch and catch for the better part of the first quarter before UW finally put the clamps on. And given the yardage that the Cougars have conceded to EWU and BSU, I’d imagine that Matt Linehan and his wideouts will find a few ways to keep the Cougar defensive backs on their toes — at least until UI’s offensive line wears out and Linehan is rushed into his throws. Wide receiver/tight end hybrid Deon Watson generally has a good 4-5 inches on every defensive back he sees and often becomes a matchup problem in the red zone. Mackey Award watch list tight end Trent ‘Buck’ Cowan can also be a tough cover. The Vandals still have plenty of holes on the other side of the ball, but they’ve seemingly improved in plugging up the run. Ex. Holding Myles Gaskin to only 67 yards. Now, it’s still a high number when you consider he carried it just 12 times for an average of 5.6 ypc, but in years past, opposing backs regularly turned 10-plus carries into 100 or more yards … so it’s an improvement. I also think highly of the kicker/punter, who you all are aware of at this point I hope.”

What has me confident about the Cougs

Familiarity: Knowing Breske’s defense should make things really easy for Luke Falk, who’s due for a performance that reminds everyone how of great he can be. The team — and its fans — could all use a little confidence boost right about now and a solid offensive performance that puts the game out of reach early could be exactly what they need heading into conference play.

Secondary: After getting torched by Eastern, the Cougs pass defense is currently occupying the bottom of most statistical categories, but the turnaround against Boise State was pretty clear. The secondary was always thought to be a strength of this defense and they started playing like it last week. Build on that performance against a pass heavy Idaho team and the offensive side of the ball won’t be the only ones getting a confidence boost.

So, Mr. Lawson...

What about Wazzu should concern U of I?

“The passing game. Then there’s the passing game. And also: the passing game. Watching the Air Raid on film must be equivalent to a M. Night Shyamalan marathon — especially for Paul Petrino, who’s seen this movie once before. In 2013, a sophomore Gabe Marks carved up the Vandals for 146 yards — on just 11 catches — and two TDs. That guy’s a senior now. Connor Halliday was under center then, but it’s my understanding that Luke Falk has proven to be just as savvy — if not savvier — within the Air Raid than his predecessor. Ideally, Mike Breske gives the Vandals some additional insight they didn’t have three years ago, but it generally comes down to making plays on the field and I’d give the edge to the Pac-12 athletes over the Sun Belt athletes at least 90 percent of the time. The Cougars, much like the Huskies, also appear to be quite a load up front — especially on the defensive side of things. The Huskies dropped Linehan four times last week, with three of those sacks coming in the second quarter. It’s obvious that UI’s O-line simply isn’t built to handle the athletes it saw last week, and the ones it’ll presumably see this week.”

How I see this game playing out

Anything less than a blow out would be fairly disappointing, which is a terrible place to put an 0-2 football team. Vegas currently has the game at WSU 49 - 23 Idaho, with the Cougs favored (-26.5) and the Over/Under at 72.

The Wazzu offense needs to do a whole lot more than that; they need to shake off the summer rust and #drop70 on the Vandals. I see an angry, aggressive Cougar offense on a mission this weekend.

This team can either play distracted by all the outside noise on the program, or really pissed off by it.

Final Score: WSU 72 - 24 Idaho

And Theo...

“Well, I’d like Idaho’s chances against a JC softball team… But I think the actual Cougars will be a much tougher proposition. The last times these two met, Paul Petrino was just four games into his tenure at Idaho — which explains, in part, the final score of the 2013 contest. 42-0 for those who need a refresher. For Idaho, the game comes down to controlling the controllables. In Seattle, the Vandals fumbled the opening kick then fumbled again while reaching the ball into the end zone. Two bad, bad breaks and yet, they only came out the first quarter trailing 7-0. The Huskies then reamed them in the second, but the ‘what ifs’ still lingered. WSU’s last two results lead me to believe the Cougars aren’t AS big, AS physical or AS athletic as their cross-state foes, so maybe UI’s O-line can last longer than it did last weekend. And the off-field distractions only seem to be mounting in Pullman this week, so maybe, just maybe, the Cougars aren’t quite as locked in as they would be otherwise. Nonetheless, WSU will finally handle its business against a lesser foe.”

Final score: Washington State 48, Idaho 13

Huge thanks to Theo for taking his time for not only these questions, but a segment on this week’s CougCenter Hour podcast with Michael Preston. You can find all his coverage of the Idaho Vandals at the Lewiston Tribune here, and follow him on twitter here.