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Is WSU's offensive line primed to be a strength?

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Most fans want to believe that, but the available metrics actually lend some objective credence to the thought.

Big is beautiful
Big is beautiful
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the 2015 iteration of Washington State's football team rises out of the bottom tier in the Pac-12, it'll be on the broad shoulders of one of the better offensive lines in the conference. Despite losing a veteran quarterback and two top receivers -- including a Biletnikoff finalist -- fans and media are still bullish on Wazzu's offense next season. The hosses in the trenches up front are a big reason why.

Offensive line talk isn't as sexy as putting together pass game clips, or running back highlights, but big is beautiful and deserves some attention.

AVG Weight

SUM Starts

SUM Stars

USC

322

74

21

Wazzu

310

87

8

Utah

307

55

15

Oregon State

304

80

15

Stanford

302

48

20

Washington

301

45

14

Oregon

300

59

16

California

299

79

15

Arizona State

298

55

16

Colorado

298

57

15

UCLA

293

108

16

Arizona

291

41

11

Neither Joe Dahl nor Gunnar Eklund were rated coming out of high school, dropping the star rating for the line as a whole to well below the conference standard. This serves only as a testament to their hard work, and the fact Clay McGuire is a helluva offensive line coach.

Click here to open a tab showing projected starters, their weights, starts, and star ratings

The Cougs and Utes are the only teams that project to start five offensive lineman over 300 pounds. Wazzu has the second largest offensive line in the conference, averaging 310, behind only USC (322) and their mammoth duo of Damien Mama (356) and Zach Banner (360). Slide Mount Cody O'Connell (6-foot-8, 356) in at left guard for Gunner Eklund and that WSU starting line average bumps up to around 320. Size isn't everything, but in three years Coach Leach has raised the average size of the starting offensive line by almost 50 pounds, which certainly isn't nothing.

Add to that size, experience. The Cougs return 87 offensive starts to the OL, trailing only UCLA, which is over two full seasons of starts (27) greater than the conference average. "Cohesion" is one of the first attributes used to describe either a successful, or failing offensive line, with the adage being something like "it takes time to become a cohesive unit." If nothing else, Wazzu definitely has size and time on its side.

***

Advanced stats aren't just for skill position players; they exist for the unheralded big men too. There is a complete glossary here which I've used to plain-language the stuff we're interested in below.

ALY: Adjusted Line Yards. This stat attempts to separate what yards on a particular running play were due to the offensive line versus the running back. The idea is to weigh run lengths in the formula differently. The longer the run, the more yardage the running back is personally responsible for. Generally, the first five yards is attributed to the OL, the next five is split, and anything over ten belongs to the RB.

StDwn: Standard Downs. First down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer.

PsDwn: Passing downs. These are downs that are not standard downs.

OPP Rate: Opportunity Rate. The percentage of carries a rusher gets at least five yards.

PSR: Power Success Rate. The percentage of carries on third or fourth down, with at least two yards to go, that picked up a first down. Also includes any down attempts on the goal line with less than two yards.

Stuff Rate: Stuff rate is the percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.

ASR: Adjusted Sack Rate. Percentage of times a quarterback is sacked, opponent adjusted so that 100 is average and above 100 is above average.

You just suffered through all of that to get to this:

Offense

ASR

Rk

StDwn Sack Rate

Rk

PsDwn Sack Rate

Rk

Opp. Rate

Rk

Power Success Rate

Rk

Stuff Rate

Rk

Adj. LY

Rk

StDwn LY per carry

Rk

PsDwn LY per carry

Rk

Colorado

162.2

11

3.5%

33

3.8%

11

36.5%

91

56.9%

117

20.2%

77

94.1

95

2.74

92

3.4

54

Washington State

143.6

21

3.6%

37

6.9%

55

31.2%

123

69.2%

45

23.2%

112

83.7

118

2.44

119

2.88

100

California

122.4

37

2.6%

17

7.7%

72

41.7%

34

66.7%

66

18.2%

49

107

44

2.97

61

4.24

3

Oregon

119

41

4.1%

51

9.4%

97

45.8%

12

68.8%

54

13.6%

6

136.8

1

3.79

1

4.25

2

USC

107.9

56

4.4%

57

8.9%

86

38.2%

76

62.0%

104

19.3%

67

104.4

54

2.79

88

3.44

48

Stanford

104.9

59

6.90%

103

4.80%

23

35.10%

103

73.70%

23

15.90%

23

103.6

59

3.18

32

3.14

79

Washington

98.2

71

4.2%

54

9.1%

91

40.7%

46

66.7%

66

20.2%

77

99.3

78

2.95

62

3.13

80

Oregon State

92.7

81

6.4%

96

8.1%

76

39.5%

61

66.7%

66

18.8%

60

100.2

71

3.07

45

2.5

115

Arizona

90

83

3.8%

41

10.6%

108

35.9%

96

63.8%

94

18.0%

47

104.2

56

2.9

72

3.84

15

Utah

82.3

94

8.4%

121

6.4%

46

39.4%

65

70.8%

40

17.8%

45

107.4

42

2.93

65

3.71

26

UCLA

74.8

115

4.9%

72

15.7%

128

45.5%

14

71.1%

38

18.7%

57

122.7

6

3.38

11

3.68

28

Arizona State

74.6

116

7.9%

115

10.4%

107

40.9%

44

52.9%

122

21.7%

101

98.8

82

2.99

58

3.44

48

The table is sorted by ASR, which conveniently puts WSU near the top, but you can sort by other categories, as well.

Connor Halliday was only sacked 21 times on 547 dropbacks -- for a sack rate of 3.84 percent -- which actually is phenomenal, and in the Top 25 of college football when adjusted for opponent strength. Looking forward, it will be interesting to see just how much of that was due to his quick trigger. Luke Falk was dropped on 6.23 pct of his pass attempts in the final three games. Falk adds some mobility, loses a little (not much) on the quick release, and the line gains a year of experience...I'm comfortable calling it a push and expecting another sub-4.0 percent sack rate on the season.

WSU will never be a Top 100 rushing team in terms of total yards, so stats such as Adjusted Line Yards that involve summary statistics are always going to look a little nasty. What's a little more concerning is the OPP Rate and Stuff Rate stats, which are somewhat related. Only 31 pct of WSU rush attempts went for at least five yards and 23 pct of runs were stopped at the line of scrimmage, both ranking out of the Top 100.

Good news here is that Wazzu has so few rush attempts, a lot of change can happen with just a few good results. If the Cougs average a modest 15 attempts per game, eliminating just one stuff and adding two five yard carries will boost that average to around a Top 50 mark. That is a pretty humble request and clearly within reach. If we project a more successful ground attack, and up the carries to 20 per game, those stats could easily reach Top 25 marks.

When you mostly do short yardage runs, and you do it well, it's reflected in the Power Success Rate. WSU trailed only Stanford, UCLA, and Utah in converting short yardage downs with runs and ranked in the Top 50 nationally. Just over a quarter (50-out of-174) of the Cougs' rush attempts were at short yardage downs, where the line to gain was less than five yards. Fifty percent (11-out of -22) of third down rush attempts were on third-and-1, another eight attempts were on third-and-2. The Cougs didn't try to gain more than a couple yards for a large majority of their non-first down attempts.

The Cougs faced third or fouth down with four yards or less (standard downs) 96 times last season. They threw it 74 pct of the time, converting 54 pct for first downs (or TDs, 6). On 18 of the 25 (72 pct) times they ran it, they converted (3 TDs). Halliday trusted his arm a little more than we expect Falk to in short yardage situations, and the offensive line's performance should give him loads of confidence dialing up a run. If there are going to be more rush attempts next season, this would be an obvious place to find them.

***

The Outland Trophy is awarded to the best interior lineman in college football, either offense or defense. Rien Long is not only the last Coug to win the award, but the last time a player in the Pac-12 (then Pac-10) took home the honors. Joe Dahl was named to the watchlist, along with nine other Pac-12 offensive lineman, after finishing a season where he surrendered one sack in 771 pass attempts. As far as stats go, that's all world and nearly as impressive as Vince Mayle's season totals at wide receiver.

The line has slowly climbed it's way up from the basement in the conference, largely unnoticed, or unacknowledged because of run game statistics. Each year they've spent getting progressively better, until now, when you start to look around and realize there aren't many other units you'd rather have. A lot of attention gets paid to the guys putting up the video game stats in the Air Raid offense. Dahl and the rest of the big guys up front are the ones making sure that can happen.