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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Arizona at Washington State

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Interactive Graphic: Does size matter?

The Cougar defensive line once again will be light compared to its opposition. Good thing new DC Jake Dickert has experience on that front.

This is the latest installment in our series of stories previewing the 2020 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.

One thing that has always stood out to me about WSU is the clear identity the offense has had. Be it the spread, Air Raid or now the Run-N-Shoot, it has most years had an identifiable brand and style.

During the early Mike Leach era, the defense was left wanting in that department. It wasn’t until Alex Grinch and the #SpeedD started to roam the Palouse that it seemed to all click into place for our beloved Cougs. That identity worked for a time, but the emphasis on speed left the defense light on the defensive line. How light, you ask? The average Pac-12 defensive lineman weighed in at 283 pounds last season, but the Cougs averaged just 263 pounds, ranking dead last in the conference.

The good news for Cougar fans is that a light defensive line isn’t an unfamiliar situation for new defensive coordinator Jake Dickert.

Virtual Water Cooler Talking Points, part 1: Line weights

  • Mountain West Avg Offensive Lineman Weight (excluding Air Force): 298 pounds
  • Pac-12 Avg Offensive Lineman Weight: 300 pounds
  • Both Wyoming and WSU had the lightest defensive lines in their conference in 2019
  • Wyoming was 2nd in the Mountain West in Defensive SP+, WSU was 10th in Pac-12

The below chart compares average weight of the defensive line to defensive SP+. Size on the defensive line does not always equal good results. Colorado had the 3rd-heaviest average defensive lineman in the Pac-12 last season and had the 2nd worst stuff rate and the 2nd worst defensive SP+ rating. Dickert had Wyoming at 2nd in Mountain West in stuff rate (12th in G5) and 2nd in defensive SP+. This wasn’t working against small offensive lines either (excluding Air Force) — the Mountain West is very on par with the Pac-12 in terms of the weight of the average offensive lineman.

I don’t know enough football to break down how Dickert did this, but what I hope I have done is uncover an interesting tidbit about his scheme/roster approach that potentially aligns to the type of player he has on the defensive line at WSU. The Co, similar to WSU last season, was often operating at a severe disadvantage in terms of size of their defensive line vs the offensive lines in their conference.

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If we go back to WSU’s release about Dickert’s hire we find some other promising statistics:

This past season, the Cowboys were sixth in the country in red zone defense, No. 11 in the country in rush defense (107.1) and scoring defense (17.8), No. 40 tackles-for-loss (83) and No. 43 in total defense. Dickert saw four Cowboys earn All-Mountain West Conference honors led by second-team All-American linebacker and Butkus Award Finalist Logan Wilson while redshirt-freshman defensive end Solomon Byrd was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

Virtual Water Cooling Talking Points, Part 2: About Jake Dickert

  • Wyoming was quite good at limiting explosive plays in 2019
  • Even with a significant size disadvantage, Wyoming was stout against the run
  • Wyoming was 3rd nationally in limiting touchdowns once their opponent crossed their 40 yard line
  • In SP+, which controls for opponent strength, WSU was 65th of 76 Power 5 + Mountain West teams on defense, while Wyoming was 27th

The below chart compares the 2019 WSU and Wyoming defenses. Sorry to bring up bad memories for some of you, but last year’s defense was...insert Mad Men “Not Great Bob!” gif. I’m hopeful that some of that was coaching and some of that was inexperience, and with a bunch of contributors like Jahad Woods, Travion Brown, and Dallas Hobbs back that the defense sees some big improvement under Dickert and company’s stewardship.

Mostly I’m intrigued at how stout Wyoming was against the run last year and whether WSU can borrow some of that in 2020, especially with run heavy teams like the Oregon State Beavers, Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies on the schedule this season.

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Wyoming had a similar size disadvantage on the defensive line to WSU but a statistically better defense last season in many categories, but what does that mean in their context as a Mountain West team? If you’re unfamiliar with SP+, it is an advanced analytics methodology created by Bill Connelly, formerly of SB Nation, currently of ESPN. The goal is to control for the level of your opponent (among a few other things) to get a better sense of how good each team in college football is.

The below chart is the Power 5 + Mountain West from 2017-2019. On defense, the lower your score the better, so I inverted the axis to make it a bit more intuitive when viewing it (higher on the chart is better). In 2017 the Cowboys and Cougs were right next to each other in the rankings and score, Wyoming at 23.10 and WSU at 22.1. This means that against an average team you would expect each defense to give up that many points.

As you’ll see in the chart, Wyoming maintained and improved a bit, finishing 2019 at 21.8, ranked 27th of the 76 teams in P5 + Mountain West, whereas WSU fell off a cliff, giving up 33.3 points vs an average offense and dropping from 27th in 2017 to 65th in 2019. The only defenses to fall off more than WSU from 2017 are the Texas Longhorns, Boston College Eagles and Florida State Seminoles. Dickert was the defensive coordinator for just 2019, but was on staff for all of those seasons at Wyoming, which I hope means that he understands how to build a defense around his scheme for sustainable success.

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The WSU defense again does not have a war daddy-type defensive tackle on the roster this year. The heaviest player on the two deep for the defensive line is Ahmir Crowder at 297. The size of the d-line was a concern going into last season and often put WSU in a bind defensively. The bright side is that it looks like Dickert and his staff he brought with him from Wyoming are good coaches who understand how to deploy an undersized defensive line for maximum effect. There is a good amount of experience back this year, but no soft landing with Pac-12 play starting this Saturday vs Oregon State, who totaled up 601 total yards and 53 points in last years epic in Martin Stadium.

We’re only a few days away from finding out if our Cougs need help on defensive via Jimmy’s and Joe’s or if last year’s ills have been solved via X’s and O’s.

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