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NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado

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2017 WSU Football Preview: How one opponent slowed down the Air Raid

And how the Cougs might counterpunch this year.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2017 Washington State Cougars football season. For previous installments, click here.

You need to take your enemy's side if you're going to see things the way they do. And you need to see things the way they do if you're going to anticipate their actions, respond effectively and beat them.

Which I want you to do very much.

-Tyrion Lannister
Game of Thrones, S7 Ep.6

Things were rolling. The Cougs were undefeated in the Pac-12, running their conference record to 7-0 for the first time in program history. The offense was putting up points at a pace that rivaled the best the school had ever seen. The defense was opportunistic enough to stifle opponents and get off the field. Special teams were doing things; sometimes they were good things.

The last two weeks of the conference season had the potential to be among the most important the Palouse had seen in a long time. And possibly, more important than any weeks ever. North division champs? Undefeated in the conference? Rose Bowl? WIN A COTDANG APPLE CUP? The hype was building.

Then the Cougars traveled to Colorado. And the hype train derailed. The offense sputtered, particularly in the second half. The defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. The special teams did things; not many of them could be considered good things. And from that point, it seemed opposing defenses had "solved" the 2016 version of the Air Raid.

Let’s take a quick look at what helped CU’s defense be a thorn in WSU’s side.

First things first, let’s acknowledge how talented the Colorado defense was last year. Seven players from that defense, including seventy-five percent of its starting secondary, were drafted into the NFL or signed UDFA agreements immediately after the draft. That is impressive, and speaks to the job Mike McIntyre and his staff have done since he took over in Boulder.

Secondly, if you look at the box score, you might think the offense did fairly well — 462 yards of total offense, 137 of that on the ground. That’s what the Air Raid wants to do right? Looking a little closer, there were two things that were problematic. Luke Falk was uncharacteristically inaccurate, completing less than fifty percent of his passes - though much of that can be attributed to the suffocating coverage and a case of the receiver dropsies at a terrible time. More frustratingly, the three-headed monster at running back never really got going.

If you break down the numbers, Jamal Morrow had two carries which gained a combined sixty-two yards. The other twenty carries, distributed among Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and James Williams went for sixty-five yards, which are numbers similar to what we saw in Leach’s early years. In other words, not good.

What I liked about CU’s defensive scheme was that it was elegant in its simplicity. WSU’s ground game is not complicated. The running back is going to cross the quarterback’s face for either inside zone or outside zone. CU countered that by running a 3-2 in the box, covering each offensive lineman, then sending a free blitzer off the slot opposite the back. Six beats five. And it helps when your secondary is good enough to play man behind the blitz.

Here’s a look from the first play of the game. Wicks is running inside zone to the offense’s left. Watch #98 Jimmie Gilbert, lined up over the slot at the bottom of the screen.

And, on the second drive, off the trips side.

Even when Falk audibled and flipped the running back to the opposite side, CU changed which side they brought the heat from. More than that, when WSU used 20 personnel — two running backs — CU still brought one off the edge. I don’t know whether they had a read on that formation, or if they were just guessing. But they guessed right an awful lot. For as complicated as schemes can be when coaches start dreaming up the Xs and Os, sometimes the best thing you can do is just KISS; keep it simple, stupid. WSU did throw some wrinkles at CU in-game, such as running outside zone and blocking the blitzer with the playside tackle. But those were adjustments, and not necessarily sustainable week-to-week.

So to extrapolate, how does WSU counterpunch a defense that has a read on its running game, like Colorado seemingly had? Beyond the obvious, ("throw the ball") I’ll give a few potential options, ranked from least likely to be implemented to more likely to implemented.

  • Zone Read - Evens up the numbers. Now we’re six-on-six in the box. But Falk takes enough hits over the course of the year that he doesn’t need to take any more. So only run this to seal up a Sun Bowl win. Apparently.
  • Pistol - Coach Leach is on record as being anti-pistol because it hurts the efficiency of the running back’s pass blocking, as well as forcing the quarterback to turn his back on at least half the field. But the benefit here would be forcing the defense to balance and not giving it a read on which side the running back is headed. Moreover, pistol seems to work better if you are a Pistol Team, i.e. you’re running the pistol on every play.
  • Same-side Inside Zone - Beat simple with simple. Instead of running inside zone across the quarterback’s face, run it to the side where the back lines up. The mesh point will look something like inverted veer, but the blocking scheme wouldn’t change up front. It does muddle the read a bit for the running back.

Something, undoubtedly, will be different. Whether it’s the A-Frame, the Empty set, the reemergence of the shovel pass, or any of the other tweaks the staff has put in, the WSU coaches have not rested on their laurels. Whether it’s one of the suggestions listed here, or some other radical idea, there will be a new wrinkle or two to the Air Raid for 2017. We get a chance to see on Saturday. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Falk & Co. unleash.

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