We are in a different corner of the offensive galaxy, folks. Not since the “Ground Raid” game against Oregon in 2016 have rushing attempts and passing attempts been so close for the Washington State Cougars offense. And even in that contest, Luke Falk had 371 passing yards compared to the 273 on the ground amassed by Jamal Morrow, James WIlliams and Gerard Wicks. Falk himself had 7 rushing yards in that game too. A big seven! Luke Falk, dual threat QB!
But Saturday in Corvallis saw the Cougars’ rushing attack outgain the passing game. Deon McIntosh had the game of his college career, with 147 rushing yards and a touchdown in place of an injured Max Borghi. McIntosh’s night was supplemented by the footwork of WSU’s breakout true freshman star, Jayden de Laura, who contributed 43 yards and a score of his own. The backfield mates worked together well in their operation of Nick Rolovich’s Run and Shoot scheme. Although, considering what we saw on Saturday, I might have to submit a change in the name: Run-Pass Option and Shoot. Because hoo buddy, we saw a lot more RPO (and Zone Read, for that matter) than I think anybody would have expected.
It was a smart move by Rolovich, if it was by design. He has a true freshman quarterback making his first start, on the road, during a pandemic-shortened season that significantly limited the number of practices to get in reps of the offense. Leaning on the running game and letting de Laura make plays with his feet would allow him to get comfortable and settle in while he adjusted to the speed of a Pac-12 defense. And if it was an on-the-fly decision of “hey, this is working, let’s keep doing it” well then that’s pretty good coaching too.
Of course, the run is just one half of the equation. As the second level defenders start to creep up on the run, de Laura has the option to yank the ball out and find a receiver. So let’s take a look at a couple plays from Saturday night where de Laura implements the RPO.
For the uninitiated, the RPO pairs a running play with a passing play, asking the quarterback to read a specified defender. Depending on the choice that defender makes, the quarterback either hands the ball to the running back or pulls it out and finds a receiver running in or near the area vacated by that defender. The first play we’ll look at is really good example of how deceptively simple this concept can be. WSU is going to pair an outside zone to the offense’s left with double slants by the two receivers to the offense’s right. Keep your eyes on #34 for Oregon State, Avery Roberts, who is the linebacker closer to the top of the screen, right under the beaver’s nose. He hesitates a bit, then flows hard chasing McIntosh on the outside zone path. When de Laura sees this, he takes the ball out of his running back’s hand and hits Renard Bell on the quick slant in almost the exact spot at which Roberts originally lined up.
Hit ‘em where they ain’t.
A couple other things to point out here. Take a look at the receivers on the run side of the ball. They release to block. Well, Lucas Bacon does on the outside. Travell Harris does ... something. Ok, to be fair, he’s aiming at the safety’s outside shoulder, which is where he wants to be. It just looks like he’s a little lost out there. But this shows that everything left of the ball is a run play, all the way to the sideline. And that’s reinforced by the offensive line. Center, left guard, and left tackle work outside, stepping with their left foot to get leverage on their respective blocking assignments. Right guard and right tackle, on the other hand, pass set. Safe to say this play will not be on Josh Watson’s highlight reel.
The Cougs ran almost the exact same play against the exact same defensive set from Oregon State; the only differences are that the offense is on the hash, and they run the pass half of the RPO play into the boundary, and they flipped which side of the offense does what. This is a good look at how space can really impact the outcome of the play. You’ll notice that the linebacker still flows with the outside zone look, though not nearly as hard. Still, there’s space there to make a throw. The problem is that because the slant is coming off the short side of the field, the linebacker (#36 Omar Speights, who is a pretty good one at that) is able to recover much more quickly than he would have if the play had been coming from the wide side or even in the middle of the field. Because of that, the window is just too tight.
It also doesn’t help that Liam Ryan oversets against the edge rusher and gets beat inside, disrupting de Laura’s line of sight and forcing him to roll out of the pocket to avoid a sack. This is tough, but I do think de Laura misreads this one. Yes, the linebacker does creep towards McIntosh on the zone, but he doesn’t overcommit. And here’s my Air Raid brain kicking in: holy crap do they have leverage on that side. I think McIntosh scores if they hand that off, to be completely honest. They’re body-for-body on the front side of the play through the free safety, and he’s drifting away. They still should have gotten the first down with the sideline throw, but man. There was something there. But of course, I’m saying this after watching the play on a looped gif approximately three billion times, and de Laura only gets the one. So I’ll give the freshman a pass. This time.
The competition goes up a notch this weekend. Oregon’s defense is bigger, faster, stronger, and just plain better than Oregon State’s defense. So we’ll have to see how de Laura does with the step up. The passing game was not super complex in week one, so it will be interesting to find out whether Rolovich continues to throttle the offense a bit, relying on Deon McIntosh and Jayden de Laura’s feet. Or will he let the freshman cook? Either way, it’s an exciting time for Coug fans, being able to watch this young man develop.