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Interactive Graphic: Previewing WSU vs UCLA

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The Cougars’ performance on various third down metrics is a huge part of their success this season. But the Bruins will provide a tough test.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s looking Iike gortex or poncho weather this weekend in Pullman as the Cougars take on a reeling UCLA team that is banged up and fresh off a loss to Arizona State. If WSU comes out victorious this weekend they’ll be sitting at 4-2 and where I was hoping (and predicting) they’d be at the mid-way point of the season.

It will have been a winding path back into the Pac-12 North race, but a big reason for the improvement thus far has been the Cougs performance on 3rd down. Last week I touched on how often we convert 3rd down, but I wanted to look at how Luke Falk and the WSU offense are straight up avoiding 3rd downs.

WSU is 6th in the country in 3rd down conversion percentage, getting a first down on 52% of its opportunities. They’re really tough to stop in those situations, but what is making the Cougars even more dangerous is that it’s really tough to force their hand by even getting them to 3rd down. Currently they’re 2nd in the Pac-12, behind UW, and 14th in the Power 5, facing a 3rd down on only 18% of their plays (this is 3rd down attempts/total plays).

UCLA is having the opposite issue and finds itself facing 3rd down on 21% of its plays. That’s a concern for them this week as they’re likely without starting QB Josh Rosen and currently sitting at 11th in the Pac-12 in 3rd down conversions, only converting 37% in those situations. The Cougar defense is 5th in the Pac-12 in stopping teams on 3rd down, only allowing a conversion 39% of the time.

One other anecdote here before the viz below. On 3rd down, Luke Falk is currently passing for 9.2 Yards Per Attempt (vs 7.11 YPA on all other downs) and getting a first down 48% of the time when he throws.

One other cool outcome of the Cougars efficiency in moving the ball is that they’re in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 in Points Per Play (PPP) for the first time in the Mike Leach era. Currently, WSU is ranking 20th nationally, 12th in the Power 5 and 2nd in the Pac-12. They’re starting to creep up close to Leach’s 2008 team, which ranked 8th nationally in PPP and laid waste to the Big-12.

The reason this is so exciting is that while WSU ranked 25th in total offense last season and was 7th in 2014, they were 48th in scoring in 2015 an 46th in 2014 in scoring. Basically, they’re not just a yardage machine this season, they’re also a points machine (currently 9th nationally in scoring offense).

While UCLA is having trouble running the ball (122nd nationally) and scoring (86th nationally) they’ve still got a pretty tough defense. They’re currently 3rd in the Pac-12 in defensive PPP, 2nd in Yards Per Play and 1st in Yards Per Attempt. The offenses could struggle due to the weather, but if somehow it isn’t raining completely sideways come game time, this will be a really good test for the Cougar offense and tell us a lot about where they’re at.

You can explore the UCLA defense’s trends in defense below. It defaults to Passing Yards Per Game, but you can use the select stat drop down to adjust what you’re looking at.

Due to weather and two defenses that are playing pretty well right now I’m worried this could be a somewhat low scoring affair. However, the WSU Air Raid is clicking in a way we haven’t really seen yet on the Palouse and I think if the defense can keep getting the ball back to Luke Falk that they could be in for a big day. What do you see happening Saturday and how do you think the Cougs will fare?