When Alex Grinch took over the Washington State defense this off-season, he inherited a bit of a mixed bag: Noticeable talent on the roster, with next to no on-field success. With promising athletes at nearly every position but only a handful of them being upper-classman, the staff went to work recruiting JUCO players at every level of the defense to help provide immediate depth, if not day-one starters.
Because of the new names -- some from this last recruiting cycle, some coming off redshirts, some finally getting their time to shine after older guys moved on -- knowing what the defense is capable of in 2015 involves a lot more than looking back at 2014.
While most of last year's defensive statistics reek like hot garbage, there's some promise, too -- even enough to suggest Coach Grinch can turn the Coug D into difference makers.
In the most comprehensive advanced metric, S&P+ (which is adjusted for opponent strength), Wazzu ranked 95th in overall team defense last season. Using the more popular and easily digestible talking-head metrics, the Cougs ranked:
- 127th in passing yardage allowed per game
- 125th in passing TDs allowed per game
- 117th in scoring defense
- 116th in passing completion percentage allowed per game
There are 128 FBS-level football teams.
"Effort is the equalizer. It's the great equalizer, in this sport and in all sports." - Alex Grinch
The optimist would point out those numbers leave a lot of room for improvement, and really even a minimal improvement on defense could be the difference between a bowl game or not this season. WSU's offense scored 31.8 points per game in 2014 with a horrible (read: sure to improve) red zone efficiency that ranked 84th in the nation. Every pre-season indication is that scoring will, at worst, remain constant.
If we set the bar that low, and let's even err on the side of caution and say the defense can't surrender more than 28 points a game, which would be a 10 point improvement from last season -- they would rank around 80th nationally.
What does that give you? Well, Arizona (80th), UCLA (77th), and Arizona State (76th) all sat in that range last year and are all in contention for the South -- a division that some are arguing is the toughest in college football.
A great offense can overcome a mediocre-to-bad defense even at 31 points per game, which appears to be the threshold (93rd in scoring defense). The only Power Five schools to give up more than 31 a game and make a bowl were Oklahoma State (31.2) and Illinois (34).
Asking - begging - the defense to be the 93rd best in college football is not asking for a whole hell of a lot.
The question is, where in these two big tables might the Cougs be able to make just enough of an improvement to get this team over the hump?
Statistics compiled from knowhuddle.com team data and are all per game averages
"What we've done is try to -- and I've used the word brainwash -- is try to brainwash them into believing that every play in football is an opportunity to get a takeaway." - Alex Grinch
When looking at those tables, none of that -- not the scoring defense, not the run defense, not anything -- has been talked about more than the turnover margin. Wazzu's coaching staff -- and fans -- have singled that out as the stat that needs to improve the most if the Cougs want to find success next year.
And for good reason.
Turnover margin influences who wins or loses a game more than any other single statistic, and WSU had an awful statistic last season. Nearly one and half extra possessions a game were given to the other team. WSU intercepted opposing quarterbacks just three times all season (only once by a player in the secondary), forced 11 fumbles and recovered five, which led to a turnover margin that ranked 126th in the nation at minus-17. Only Georgia State and Eastern Michigan were worse.
Advanced metrics indicate fumble recoveries are mostly 50/50 propositions. SB Nation's resident stat guru Bill Connelly expanded on that a little more with us via email:
I've played around a lot with fumble recovery rates, and while you can certainly see a trend as it pertains to the defense recovering fumbles further from the line of scrimmage, as a whole, your rate always regresses toward 50%. So in lieu of a more complicated "where did it happen?" formula (which is certainly on the long-term to-do list), it's pretty easy to notice a team that recovered 30%/70% of fumbles in a given year and figure that will probably be closer to 50% the next year.
Passes defensed are a little bit trickier but still useful. On average, you're going to intercept 21-24% of your passes defensed (INTs + PBUs). This can obviously change based on position — it appears safeties will have a higher ratio because they're less likely to have their backs turned from the ball and are more likely to be tracking it while running downhill toward the pass — and the scorekeeper himself can influence this number a bit. But again, on average, if you intercepted 10% or 40% in a given year, you are almost certainly going to move back toward 21-24% the next year.
When an outcome is statistically independent, it isn't influenced by outside variables -- not coaching, not players, not scheme, not opponents, not anything else in the game -- and we call it "luck". Coaching lives right in the middle of that space between the unpredictable luck of a bouncing ball and the technique that's required to get it bouncing.
"What so often happens is, kinda people default back to the luck side of things. The ball, certainly we can't control where it bounces, but we can certainly impact whether or not it's on the ground." - Alex Grinch.
Getting a TO on the ground
Last season the Cougs just weren't that great at getting the ball on the ground. They had the fewest forced fumbles in the conference (11), with seven out of the 12 conference teams forcing at least 20 during the season.
WSU faced 430 rush attempts which means the Cougs had a forced fumble rate of 2.6 percent. The conference average was 484 attempts and a 4.0 percent fumble rate. Simple math tells us if you nearly double the rate while facing 50 more rush attempts, you'll get double the opportunities to recover a football and almost certainly take the ball away more often.
You hear coaches encouraging gang tackling, where extra players in on a tackle rip for the ball. About 63 percent of WSU's tackles last season were solo tackles, which is just below the conference average of 64 percent. Although there was no correlation between teams that had higher assisted tackle numbers and forced fumbles, more guys around a ball-carrier at the point of contact is never a bad thing. It prevents explosive plays and offers more hands and eyes on a loose ball.
Getting a TO in the air
Washington State broke up 41 pass attempts last season, generating a 6.8 percent interception rate of defensed passes. This is extremely low. As Bill C mentioned above, it's outlier low ... which means it's unlikely to be repeated low. Unlucky. Just a statistically average rate would've netted about nine interceptions.
Of those 41 pass break ups, cornerback Charleston White notched 13, the highest freshman total in the country. Rather than think this is some product of an excessive amount of passing, it should indicate that he had the athletic ability as a freshman to be just close enough.
The Wazzu secondary faced 35.8 pass attempts per game. The average for a PAC-12 defense was 37.6, which would be around the 19th most in the nation if it was a single team. Not that unexpected for a conference that airs it out all over the yard every week. (Side note: WSU gets the advantage of not playing WSU...who probably skews that up a little for everyone else.) Wazzu defensed 9.6 percent of the passing attempts it faced per game, right at the conference average -- Utah, Oregon, and USC were at the top, all around 12 percent.
The challenge for Coach Grinch is to enable that secondary to turn pass break-ups into interceptions. When you see that players have been in place to make plays, but don't, the difference can be so small it's only mental.
"Part of that's a mindset," Grinch says. "Attacking the football -- whether it's in the air, or a ball-carrier is carrying it, part of that, in order to do those things, and be aggressive, and I use the word attack, you gotta know where you're going when you're supposed to be there. 'Cause it's hard to be aggressive and have that attacking mindset if we don't do the right job as coaches, as teachers."
We have the opportunity to get the ball back to our offense every single snap, and that's our aim. - Alex Grinch
Coach Grinch, self admittedly, borrowed a little from some NFL guys and implemented Takeaway Ball where in the words of coach, "every time you hit the practice field, you hit the ball. Just as a reminder this thing's about the football".
When you look at all the ways the defense could improve, creating turnovers is the fastest way to not only make this defense slightly less below average, but ultimately get the team some wins. What was often most devastating about Coach Leach's teams at Texas Tech were the TD-TO-TD sequences during games, where an opponent would horrifically witness a double-digit point swing in a single-digit span of plays. That just hasn't happened yet for WSU. The offense wasn't explosive enough and the defense didn't turn the ball over.
Coach Grinch and the rest of the Coug D have been busy working to remedy their half of the equation. Read any one of Jacob Thorpe's practice reports in the Spokesman Review and you'll see a surprising number of interceptions, fumbles, sacks, and various other positive musings about the defense. Things we wouldn't really have expected, things that indicate the message Grinch is preaching has taken root.
The comfortable fan observation is to say is that since WSU's offense is playing against the defense in practice, good news on either side might be because its counterpart is bad. Don't do this for the good news about the defense. Make no mistake about it, the offense will be a force. Every day that defense has gone up against not just a good, but a great passing offense, full of explosive wide receivers and a formidable offensive line.
In a "Mic'd Up" video from this spring (different from below), Grinch remarked "it doesn't take much to become an average defense." From the sound of things coming out of camp, it appears they've managed to do just that. Maybe more.
Coach Alex Grinch Mic'd up for PAC-12 Networks