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Coach’s Corner: Revisiting what went wrong against EWU in 2016

How a defensive wristband SNAFU may have cost the Cougs the win

WSU Athletic Communications

Searching for game film from San Jose State last week or from Eastern Washington’s first two games proved fruitless, so instead we’re dipping into the archives to a game that is a sore spot for Cougar Nation—the last time EWU came to the Palouse. We were sent in this direction by an interesting tidbit revealed by former Cougar running back Gerard Wicks in a retelling of the game by the Spokesman-Review.

Gerard Wicks: “One thing the fans don’t know is our defense had on different wristbands, so we had half the team on defense with a different wristbands. Say if they would call ‘Play 4,’ one side of the defense would be running Cover 3 while the other side would be blitzing. It was something crazy and we were wondering how was Cooper Kupp getting so wide open. He’s a great player, he’s outstanding, but he was wide open. It came to halftime and we figured out half the defense had on white wristbands and the other had on black wristbands, so everybody wasn’t on the same page. We blew the coverages a lot in the first half. Leach was, oh my God, mad is an understatement. He was hot.”

That’s... less than ideal. Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp was a tough enough guy to cover as it was. Coverage miscommunications weren’t going to make that any easier. Let’s take a look at some of those possible breakdowns from the first half.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Grinch was a bit paranoid. According to the Lewiston Tribune, “Grinch [swapped] out the wristbands as many as six times a game, just in case an opponent [was] trying to break his code. One game, he changed them eight times.” If that’s the case, it was likely only on one wristband swap, so this may only have affected one or two defensive series.
  • “Half the team” probably wasn’t half the team. Starters and backups may have been on different bands, but they mix and match frequently with rotation. It may also have only been half the secondary.
  • Coverage busts won’t necessarily be apparent on a running play, for obvious reasons. And run fits for secondary players can be very fluid.
  • Players make mistakes. A misread can look an awful lot like a miscommunication. It can be tough, without knowing the specific playcall and/or scheme rule, to determine whether a player didn’t get the call correct or just played the read poorly.
  • EWU scored 21 points in the second half, supposedly after the wristband issue was sorted. So there were larger defensive issues at hand as well.
  • Shalom Luani was suspended.

All things considered, we may only be talking about a handful of plays in the first half. But in a game that ended up a three-point difference, one or two plays may have been the backbreakers.

The first example is one where it might be a miscommunication or it might just be a misstep by a defender, and we really can’t be sure without specifically asking somebody involved in the play. Watch the bottom of the screen and the coverage of Kirkland Parker, the corner, and Dylan Hanser, the linebacker running to the flat.

This is some sort of Fire Zone concept, with the defense sending five and dropping six in coverage. Generally with Fire Zones, you want interior defenders walling off the middle and playing inside out. That clearly doesn’t happen here and there is an acre of space in the intermediate middle. WSU is playing Cover 3 behind this blitz, and you can see the safeties rotate hard. But one defender is playing man—Dylan Hanser. He chases the running back to the flat. What we don’t know is whether that’s by design. Hanser may have been blitz-to-peel. He blitzes, but if the back on his side flares, he peels off and chases. It’s a common technique, but less so in a Fire Zone, particularly in this case because there is now no defender to wall off the inside. Parker also makes a zone turn instead of man-lock technique, so it’s not man coverage on that side. We just don’t have enough information to know, in this case.

The most likely culprit comes early in the second quarter, on what ended up being a long touchdown catch and run by Cooper Kupp. Hunter Dale is the safety to the top of the screen. He’s definitely operating on different information than his running mate, Jalen Thompson.

At first glance, it looks like Dale screws this up. He flies up to the hook/curl like he’s in Cover 3, but Thompson stays home over the #2 receiver, Cooper Kupp, giving the impression that the rest of the secondary is playing Cover 4. However, keep in mind the blitz by the linebackers. It’s tough to back up a blitz by playing Cover 4 behind it. There’s just way too much space at the intermediate level. Considering the nickel/outside linebacker playing the hook/curl to the bottom of the screen, I would lean towards Jalen Thompson missing the rotation to the deep middle in the zone. Either way, one of the safeties was not on the same page with the rest of the defense.

All because somebody screwed up a wristband.

The Cougar defense will operate Saturday sans wristbands, as new Defensive Coordinator Tracy Claeys does not use them, when facing the Eastern Washington Eagles this Saturday at 5:00 PDT. Here’s hoping all eleven on the defense are on the same page all night.

For further reading on Wristbandgate, check out Brian Floyd’s entry on the mothership.