The defense. Oh, the defense. There was some concern leading into Friday night’s game against Houston that the defense, which had been gashed at times by Northern Colorado, was going to struggle to contain D’Eriq King and the Houston rushing attack. And at times, they did. Tackling was questionable, run gaps had poor fits, and there were too many pass interference calls against the secondary. Despite those miscues, the defense did have stretches where they played pretty well, particularly in the second half. And while it’s obviously not apples to apples, Houston had fewer points, fewer total yards, fewer first downs, and more turnovers against Washington State than they did against Oklahoma. And I’ll remind you, with the offense that the Cougs have, the defense doesn’t need to be the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. They just have to be competent and consistent. And I’m of the opinion that that is exactly what we have.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some defensive clips from Friday night.
Here’s a look at what I think was the basic game plan for the Cougar defense. Take a look at the defensive line. They slant a gap away from the running back, presumably in an attempt to force a keep read from King. One of the ways defensive coordinators can manipulate an offense that relies on reading defenders is by forcing the offense into the read you want them to take. On several occasions Friday night, the Cougar defensive front slanted into the zone path of the running back, almost as if Tracy Claeys was daring King to be the one to beat him. Considering the amount of damage that the Houston quarterback is capable of doing, that’s quite the stance to take.
I’m being a little unfair here, since it’s 2nd & 22. The Cougar defense is certainly expecting pass, which is why they’re a little light in the box. Will Rodgers III gets put in a bind here, as Houston reads him in the zone option. He also makes matters worse for himself by overpursuing and creating a seam for the running back. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if King had kept it here. Willie Taylor III, at the bottom of the screen, has his outside shoulder free, and Daniel Isom is flowing hard to the play. But this is the basic framework of how the Cougar defense is going to play the Houston running game. They won’t slant to the zone path every time; they’ll straight rush or slant to the quarterback as well. But it seemed to be a concerted effort to take away the inside zone with the movement of the defensive line.
Jump forward to the second quarter, and we see Dana Holgorsen’s first response to WSU’s defensive movement. The running back is set to defense’s right, so the line will slant left to control that side of the ball. The two linebackers, Woods and Justus Rogers, will essentially man lock onto the quarterback and the running back. Houston will show a jet sweep motion, looking to widen the edge defender at the bottom of the screen. Here’s the wrinkle for Houston: Instead of running a basic zone read, the running back instead acts as a lead blocker for the quarterback by pathing back towards defense’s right.
Houston actually has this blocked up pretty well on the play side. The problem for them is that the slant of the defensive linemen occupied four of their five offensive linemen. And because there is no interior pass threat at the top of the screen, Jahad Woods is free to pursue the play. The guard isn’t able to squeeze through to second level, allowing Woods to fly to the hole, where he makes a sure tackle to bring down King.
Let’s jump to the pass defense for a moment. The advent of RPO offenses has led to a shift towards more man concepts. It allows for an extra defender in the box to counter a potential QB run, while taking away space from the inside receivers and screwing up the QB’s reads in the second level. On the play in the clip, WSU is playing what looks like Cover 1; a single deep safety playing centerfield, while all the receivers are manned up across the board. This is actually a combination coverage, however. The linebacker level is going to zone up across the second level, which serves two purposes. First, it allows you to be physical with crossing receivers; second, it gives you basically three defenders that are spying D’Eriq King.
Woods is the actual spy here, by design. He reads pass, then comes on a delayed blitz to try and force a throw by King or to flush him wide. The two outside linebackers have BOYS (Back Out on Your Side) to contain rush. The back doesn’t release, so that gives Willie Taylor a free run at King after he leaves the pocket. In essence, as long as the coverage holds up on the back end, that gives King very few places to go with the ball, or with his legs.
So what was the difference between the first half defense and the second half defense? What adjustments did Claeys make to the defense at halftime that allowed them to contain the Houston attack a little bit more consistently and effectively? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that there were any tangible adjustments. The scheme looked remarkably similar from what I saw. They may have decided to slant one direction a bit more often or other minor tweaks, but it really seemed like the defensive adjustments boiled down to Claeys saying “Hey, play better.” And they did, particularly on the back end. As the secondary tightened up the coverage, that allowed the box defenders to play a bit more aggressively, squeezing the Houston offense just a little tighter. And the results speak for themselves.
The Washington State defense gets another look at an offense that does a fair amount of RPO Saturday night against UCLA. Let’s hope the defense continues to improve and gets the ball back in the hands of Anthony Gordon and the high-flying offense as fast as possible.