The Washington State Cougars started out 2017 hot, not only winning their first five games but scoring more than four touchdowns in each of the first four games and clocking more than 6.6 yards per play in four of those first five weeks — two things they’ve managed to do just once since.
The Air Raid is currently playing second-fiddle to the Speed D, but the Cougs are still 7-2 and in control of their own destiny — a combination of facts none of us foresaw.
Starting quarterback Luke Falk has had some truly great fourth quarters as a Coug. Whether it’s his great trio of comeback wins against Rutgers, Oregon, and UCLA in 2015, or gutting it out against Arizona State and Oregon State, Falk has generally been at his best during crunch time for Wazzu.
With the Cougs now entering the fourth quarter part of the season — nine games are in the rear view mirror and at least four more lay ahead of them — let’s take a look at where the offense sits right now and where it needs to improve if it’s going to clutch up like its starting quarterback has done so often before.
Ever since head coach Mike Leach’s first season at Washington State, we’ve been tracking offensive production a little differently. Back when he was a coordinator at Texas Tech under Leach, now-West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen described how they would chart total touches, yardage and touchdowns at each position to statistically evaluate offensive production in Leach’s Air Raid.
“Balance” is traditionally looked at in football as the number of run plays versus the number of pass plays called during a game. Running the ball half the time meant you were “balanced” on offense. But that’s not really how Coach Leach views balance. From an interview all the way back in August of 2012:
“There's a whole myth about balance, and it's really stupid. The notion that you hand it to one guy half the time, and then you throw it to two other guys the other half of the time, and maybe you connect, maybe you don't. There's nothing balanced about it. There's two skill positions left out, ya know? Balance is, whether you run it or throw it, getting contributions from all the skill positions.”
With that in mind, let’s examine how the touches and yardage have been distributed throughout the last three years. First, a quick reminder of the various position letters:
Now, the stats. We’re going to focus in on Falk’s three full years as a starter. The bars are touches per game and correspond to the axis to the left; the lines are yards per game and correspond to the axis on the right. Touches for the running back (F) position include both receptions and rush attempts:
Here’s the data in tabular form going all the way back to 2012:
Since Falk took over at starting quarterback in 2015, the offense has been fairly steady in its season average production. Some games — like Oregon State this year — have an obvious preference to get the ball to outside receivers, while other games — like Oregon last year — demonstrate an uncharacteristic commitment to the run game. That all evens out to about the same spot over the course of the season when we look at total production.
Overall, the offense sits at the middle of the pack in terms of advanced stats. They are 44th in Success Rate, 54th in Explosiveness, 67th in Average Starting Field Position, and 70th in Points Per Trip Inside the 40 yard Line.
How did they get to such a mediocre standing? Let’s take a look at production by position.
We’ll be referencing projections made within our season preview post; you can follow the link if you care to see last season’s analysis paired with what we thought we’d see this fall. A graphical summary of projections and actual results are below.
F - Running Back
What we projected: Similar rush attempts per game with a few of their passing targets getting redistributed to wide receivers, bringing down their per game yardage and touches numbers by just a tad. 29 touches and 195 yards per game.
TAR - targets; REC- receptions; CR% - catch rate; YPA - yards per attempt; YPR - yards per rush; YPC - yards per catch; EXPL; explosive (at least 12 yds for rush, at least 20 yds for pass); MTC - “move the chains” (picked up a first down); Opp. Rate - “opportunity rate” (rush attempt went at least five yards); DROP - a subjective counting and you’ll notice they underestimate them by a lot
Like last season, about 55 percent of the total offense again runs through the F position with nearly 31 of the team’s total 56 touches per game. Rush attempts have backed off from about 22 to 19 per game and receptions increased by about two per game over last year.
Only eight percent of Coug rush attempts are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (8th nationally) and 43.4 percent of rush attempts go at least five yards (Opp. Rate: 23rd). These are similar to what the Wazzu offense posted last season. An explosive run is considered any carry that went at least 12 yards, and the 1.7 average is down from the 2.6 average from 2016.
A similar stuff rate and opportunity rate as last year would indicate offensive line blocking has been roughly consistent for the running backs. That assumption, combined with explosive runs dropping and the overall yards per rush attempt dipping from 5.8 to 5.0, points to receiver blocking at the second-level not creating the same opportunities for the backfield that they did last year.
This would make sense with two smaller, green inside receivers. River Cracraft and Robert Lewis were constantly praised for their blocking ability, and that absence is noticed a little bit in run game production.
Coug backs lead the team in overall passing targets with a little over 13 a game and post the highest Catch Rate (CR%) on the team at 89 percent. They’re gaining roughly five more yards per game through the air than they did last season on about one additional reception.
X - Left of formation
What we projected: “I’d expect X to jump a handful of touches per game, to around 9 or 10, and yardage to increase from 11.4 yards per touch in 2015 to near 12.5 yards (historical average), making X around a 115-yard position per game.”
3D.TAR - targets on third down; 3D.MTC% - percentage of third down targets that got a first down or touchdown; RZ.TAR - targets in the red zone (inside the 30 yard line); RZ_CONV - how many targets were converted to a first down or touchdown
Tavares Martin Jr. has been a stud at X this season, posting one of the higher yards per catch rates WSU has had at outside receiver since Vince Mayle, and he is tied for the lead in receptions despite missing a full game. His 11 explosives lead the team by a wide margin — no one else is above six — and his 26 red zone targets lead the next closest receiver by 10. Just over 60 percent of the time Martin Jr. catches the ball, it goes for a first down.
Tay Martin has been extremely explosive — helped a lot by his amazing touchdown against Arizona last weekend — but like a lot of the young receivers, isn’t nearly as consistent as that position demands. A catch rate below 60 percent outside really hampers this offense, however he’s fairly in line with what we should expect from a true freshman.
Hauling in just one more reception would get this position to about what we thought it’d be before the season, and really it should get around three more receptions and 30 more yards if Martin can get his catch rate to near 60 percent.
Z - Right of formation
What we projected: “Z will probably drop a few touches per game, functioning more as a possession and chunk yardage position, picking up somewhere around its standard 11 yards per catch. Big games would have this position around a dozen touches and 150 yards, the more likely average is around seven or eight touches and close to 100 yards.”
Losing Gabe Marks really made the bottom drop out of Z’s production. Its 72-yard-per-game average is the lowest that position has been at WSU under Leach, and an outside receiver turning nearly 70 attempts worth of attention into just over nine yards per catch isn’t exactly a recipe for a dynamic offense.
Isaiah Johnson-Mack has had a little bit of a yo-yo type season, bouncing back last weekend with eight receptions and 69 yards after having a single catch for a single yard against Colorado.
Every other game — kinda like clockwork — Johnson-Mack swings between having a few sparse receptions and a solid handful for good yardage. As good as he is, he needs to find ways to make those receptions a bit more valuable to the offense — even something as little as gaining an extra two yards on outside screens really adds up for offensive efficiency.
Dezmon Patmon has only just started showing some real promise, hauling in a reception in consecutive games for the first time all season during the last three. Each game has been more productive than the last (Rec-Yds-YPC): 2-11-5.5 against Cal, 4-48-12.0 against CU, and 5-72-14.5 at Arizona.
His target rate is increasing and it’s a good sign he’s developing some trust with the quarterbacks. Patmon could boost Z back up to its regular output if he builds upon that little three game streak of his and maintains the YPC output with increased touches.
H - Left of formation
What we projected: “H is a typical 60-reception position on the season, and you should expect them to be around five receptions and 50 yards per game until the youngsters prove invaluable play-makers and siphon some receptions away from the potent WSU backfield.”
Despite Renard Bell being a dynamic human-firework at inside receiver, WSU still hasn’t changed much in regards to target allocation. His six explosives are second-most on the team and his 16.2 yards per catch have turned H into a viable deep threat for the first time in it’s Wazzu Air Raid iteration.
The catch rate is a little lower than you’d want from an inside receiver — Robert Lewis consistently posted one of the highest rates on the team in previous seasons — but them’s the breaks with a freshman and the trade off to get explosive at that position is probably worth it.
His 40 targets are already close to the total Lewis would see in a season, and a lot of cause for the diminished touches is due to Wazzu being in a two-running-back set that subs for his position. With that catch rate and YPC average, Bell has earned at least another three or four targets per game, especially if Z isn’t producing the yardage it should outside.
Y - Right of formation
What we projected: “Expect the six touches per game to remain around the same, but the yardage to increase from 68 yards per game to somewhere in the 80s with both Sweet and Calvin doing more with yards after the catch.”
Y has not at all continued the near automatic 3rd down conversion rate established by River Cracraft at the position — now trailing X in 3rd down targets and only converting 8-of-26 attempts — but Kyle Sweet has been a very steady presence. His 74 percent catch rate leads all receivers (not in the backfield) and his 10.7 yards per catch is hovering right around the 11 yards the position normally gains.
Jamire Calvin has shown more than a couple flashes of being a highly dynamic inside receiver but the after the catch production has been fairly spotty. Rather than make the position do more with less, kinda like we thought might happen, so far Y is producing about the same yardage with an extra touch per game.
Losing that reliability on third down has had a huge impact on the offense overall, impacting both success rate and enabling only 40-of-128 total drives to even reach inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
Y has made its hay recently settling into stick or option routes underneath, or hitting over the top on seams and corners. Like we mentioned before, Sweet and Bell need to bring Y-Cross back to the intermediate middle and stress that linebacker depth on third downs. That along with some improved blocking could have some of the highest impact on offensive scoring and efficiency.
The offense is doing just a hair off what we expected them to do before the season, trailing most projections by only a touch or two and only an average touch or two behind in yardage. Both easily solvable problems with increases in catch rates ... which is always a bit of a roller coaster with young receivers.
The difference between those projections and what the offense is currently doing is the difference between an elite, Top 10 offense and an offense in the 40s.