Wazzu enters the bye week with a 2-1 record, right where most level-headed people projected them, but took a route to get there that has jaded some of the "feel good" vibes among the fanbase. Good news is losing to Portland State didn't define where the talent or level of play would be for the season, bad news is the Cougs didn't bury either opponent they were supposed to, or execute a finishing move in Piscataway after they were up a couple scores.
To begin, check out the advanced stats page for WSU. I'd go ahead and bookmark that bad boy, Bill Connelly will update it weekly.
Sticking with advanced stats for a minute, WSU started out the season with a projected S&P+ ranking of 56th in the nation. That's since dropped to 90th. That fall is nearly triple the next highest deviation in the conference (Arizona, -12). In fact, eight of the PAC-12 teams stayed within six spots of their projection, and WSU's is one of the worst drops in the nation.
Algorithms don't like it when you lose to an FCS school. Oregon State (51 pct) and Colorado (48 pct) are the only games left on the schedule that have win expectancy over 25 pct. "This is a four-win team until proven otherwise" is the leader in the clubhouse after the first quarter of the season.
Still, WSU has found a way to gut out a pair of wins. First, with the offense against Rutgers, then with the defense against Wyoming, and goes into conference play showing a few signs of brilliance on both sides of the ball.
What has me concerned about WSU
The Air Raid has a governor. The yardage output for the offense has been fine. Unfortunately, total yardage is an almost worthless evaluative metric. Quarterback Luke Falk is hitting at a 73 pct completion rate, but at 6.7 yards per attempt and only 34 pct of plays going for a TD or first down, the offense is playing more underneath than it should.
The 6.3 touches per game at the X (outside) receiver position is half of what WSU averaged last season. As a whole, touches to receivers are down from last year by around five a game. Jeff and I will go more in depth on this next week, but guess how many passes were attempted -- not completed, attempted -- more than 15 yards downfield against Wyoming?
Third Down Conversions. Wazzu is converting only 31.8 pct of the time. This is very bad and earns them a rank of 111th in the nation. We'll unpack this next week too, so for now your major takeaway is that an offense that wants to dink and dunk its way down the field, but can convert on third down less than a third of the time, shouldn't expect to get far.
Red doesn't mean stop, offense. WSU is currently ranked 81st in scoring at 28.3 points per game, helped in no small part by it's inefficiency in the red zone. The Cougs have only turned six of their eleven trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. Factoring in field goals doesn't make things much better, they still only get points 81.2 pct of the time, which ranks 78th nationally.
They haven't found their Chris Farley. Motivation is an interesting gray area in sports. As fans, we have no idea what the culture is like in the locker room but can draw some conclusions based on performance. Coming out flat at home isn't very confidence-inspiring, coming out flat twice makes people more than a little concerned. Coaches Joe Salave'a, Ken Wilson, and Roy Manning seemingly got things figured out with the defense, whereas the offense still looks ho-hum at times.
Previous years have had wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons on the sideline. He was the first to put his arm around a guy coming off the field and celebrated every touchdown pass by giving dap to Connor Halliday. He was an obvious high-energy guy for the offense, a role that doesn't exist for them now.
Both Graham Harrell and David Yost are up in the booth, and with Coach Leach being preoccupied with head coaching duties -- who's actually on the sideline for the receivers? Is it all on Coach McGuire, who probably has his hands full dealing with the big bodies, and Coach Mastro, who is already wrangling three running backs?
At this point, it seems a little redundant to have two receivers coaches in the booth and none manning the sideline, but maybe they just have that much confidence in their assistants.
Gabe Marks has an infectious energy, we just haven't seen the rest of the corps play fast and loose alongside him. I humbly suggest they need a Hype-Man; a towel-waving, smack-talking, chest-bumping, crazy-ass sideline Hype-Man. I hate this word and hate that I'm typing it -- they need more swagger. Coach Harrell isn't leaving the box, Leach needs him to relate what he's seeing on the field and you can only imagine that rapport is real strong, so Coach Yost might be the one that needs to fill that role, and he's got a super chill-bro relaxed style about him.
We'll see if things change, though after two blah home game efforts it's pretty evident they need to.
The incomparable Jacob Thorpe, WSU beat writer at the Spokesman Review stopped by to drop some knowledge
What has you concerned about the WSU offense after the first three games? The defense?
"The inability of the passing game to capitalize on a potent running game and good blocking upfront is what I think is most concerning about the WSU offense. The Cougar running backs are averaging about 5.7 yards per carry, about 1.5 yards per carry more than they did a year ago. However, WSU's average yards per plays is 6.1, right around where the Cougars were last season. And, what do you know, the Cougars are averaging 1.5 yards per catch less than they did last season.
The Cougars getting fewer yards per complete pass is especially concerning when you consider the fact that they're on pace to give up 16 fewer sacks than they did last season. With extra time in the pocket, quarterback Luke Falk should be able to let plays develop further downfield and hit receivers who have had more time to get open. That's not really happening, and the lack of of explosive plays is a big reason why the Cougars are averaging about three points less per game in 2015 despite not yet playing any particularly imposing defenses.
On defense I think the concern has to be the inability to stop opposing rushers, both before and after contact. The leading rushers for Portland State, Rutgers and Wyoming have combined to average 6.9 yards per designed rush against the Cougars. One can't help but wonder what Royce Freeman and Paul Perkins will do to a defense that can't bring down Brian Hill with one tackle."
What I'm confident in about the Cougs
Turnovers. Going into this season, I was really high on not only the style of play defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was implementing, but also by the way it seemed his message was resonating with the players. You can argue some unsustainable luck was involved with the fumble recoveries, but the point remains they got the ball bouncing. And the two interceptions were both exceptional plays.
Hopefully the luck will hold and the defense will continue to rip extra possessions for the offense they start to face way better opponents. At least we know that mindset grew roots.
Running backs. The RBs have always been a major part of the Air Raid, and the Cougs have three pretty good ones on the roster now. Gerard Wicks is proving to be a highly capable between the tackles runner, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and going at least five yards on 44.8 pct of his runs. Keith Harrington has been the spark-plug, home run threat we thought he'd be out of the backfield, averaging 8.7 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per catch.
The F position is actually only getting 14.5 rush attempts per game, a little below what we'd projected last spring, but has been more active in the pass game. Their total touches have increased to 25.3 per game, up from 22.5 last season, and total yardage has jumped to 143 yards per game, up from 113.4 yards last season. Encouraging stuff.
Gabe Marks. Marks is on pace for a thousand yard season, averaging 10.7 yards per catch with a catch rate of 78.1 pct. He's currently getting the most love from Falk, who's targeting him on just over 21 pct of all pass attempts. Marks is a stud. If the offense ever gets to full throttle he could really begin putting up monster numbers.
Protection. The big guys up front are currently posting a sack rate of three percent, Falk was around six last season. The defensive fronts in conference play will be vastly better than PSU and Wyoming. Falk may need to develop a stronger itch on his trigger-finger to keep the sack rate down, but the line's performance to this point has been close to outstanding.
So, Mr. Thorpe...
What are you most confident in with the WSU offense after the first three games? The defense?
"While I know the coaches still think there is room for improvement along the offensive line, I think at this point the unit is fine tuning whereas the rest of the offense still has major improvements to make. The line is on pace to give up just 20 sacks this year, and at least two or three of the five sacks they've given up so far can be at least partially pinned on Falk holding onto the ball too long or running into trouble. The group seems more willing to use its athleticism this year, running downfield on sweeps and screen passes to create explosive plays.
On defense I think the secondary has been stable, if not an outright bright spot. Yes, they still get beat occasionally, but playing defensive back is like playing baseball: you're going to fail, it's about how often. While Darrien Molton got exposed a bit by Rutgers, I think he's playing very well for a true freshman three games into his first season and Shalom Luani has good range and hitting ability at safety. More than anything else, really, I've just been surprised that this group hasn't given up more explosive passing plays."
How does what you've seen out of the team so far this season compare with what you'd thought they'd look like on Saturdays before the season started? Judging from practice, have WSU fans seen the best this offense or defense can be on Game Day yet?
"When the season started, I wasn't sure that this team was good enough to win against the good to great teams in the Pac-12, but I definitely thought the Cougars were in a place where they could handily defeat the Portland States and Wyomings of the world. Obviously, that isn't the case.
I guess I expected that the team would be 2-1 after three games, so in that sense they're right on pace. That said, Rutgers isn't the team I expected it to be, so the Cougars not being 3-0 is pretty glaring. The defense is about what I expected, but I anticipated the offense being better and the receiving corps being a more dominant unit.
I certainly don't think either side is playing at its full potential, although the defense may have been close to it in the second half against Wyoming."
If you were forced to play the optimist, which four conference games do you see the Cougs winning to get to a bowl?
"Based on how all the teams have looked so far this season, I think the Cougars will still be favored at home against Oregon State and Colorado. To get to four Pac-12 wins, WSU probably also needs to win the Apple Cup, an achievable feat in any year no matter what the teams look like entering the game.
I'm inclined to say the next most winnable game is at home against an Arizona State team that has been pretty pedestrian. But that's now how these Cougars operate. Somehow, Mike Leach's WSU teams seem to do better against good Pac-12 teams on the road than against OK ones at home. So, I think WSU's best chance to get another Pac-12 win comes against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson."
Major thanks to Jacob for stopping by our corner of the internet and be sure to check out his Quarter-Season Unit Grades