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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs the Arizona Wildcats

Arizona has a running quarterback but WSU has a good rush defense this year. We breakdown the UA zone read and hit major story lines for the game with help from Anthony Gimino of Lindy’s Football Annuals.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State — 6-2 and freshly appraised the No. 25 team in the country by the CFP Selection Committee — plays host to a reeling Arizona Wildcat (2-6) team.

Arizona dropped a close one to BYU to open the season, then picked up wins over Grambling State and Hawaii before entering conference play. In the month of October, the Wildcats did not (A) have a win expectancy over 20% in any game, (B) hold an opponent under 34 points, (C) score more than 24 points, or (D) win.

Washington — whom they took to overtime — was the last September bright spot before a really shaky month for head coach Rich Rodriguez. Losses to UCLA, USC, and Stanford weren’t competitive and Utah rattled off 26 unanswered points after UA jumped out to a 14-3 lead.

Last week against Stanford the Wildcats completed five passes. In the entire game.

A walk-on, a true freshman who was supposed to redshirt, and a converted tight end have all played quarterback for Arizona this season. They’ve also played their two normal ones that Wazzu will see on Saturday: Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon, who saw his first action last week after being out since September 3rd.

He didn’t throw any of their five completions.

It’s a toss up who will play against WSU; “both” is probably your best bet with “either” being a somewhat distant second.

Washington State has had a rough time defending mobile quarterbacks in recent history. Or even relatively immobile ones that decided to run.

Last season, a little over 20 percent of the total rushing yardage allowed by the defense came from the quarterback position (760 yards). Here’s the number of times in a game an opposing quarterback rushed for over 10 yards:

  • PSU - 7
  • Oregon - 2
  • OSU - 4
  • UA - 3
  • Stanford - 3
  • UCLA - 3
  • CU - 1
  • UW - 1

Seth Collins (OSU), Jeff Lockie (UO), Kevin Hogan twice (Stanford), Jerrard Randall (UA), and Josh Rosen (UCLA) all had runs of 30 or more yards.

That left fans wondering if there was something inherent to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s scheme that made the Cougs vulnerable to dual-threat quarterbacks. That’s somewhat relevant today because quarterback Brandon Dawkins is Arizona’s leading rusher and didn’t even play in two games.

Rich Rodriquez is a lot like Mike Leach in that offensively, they do what they do. He doesn’t really dress things up too much. He’s going to read option the living daylights out of your defensive ends. And if the backers cheat to help? Screens off RPOs (run-pass options). And if the safeties or corners cheat? Shots down the sideline every once in a while.

All with a nice dose of inside power, trap, and counter sprinkled in.

Optioning the weak side defensive end into the boundary was sort of a go-to for Jerrard Randall in the game against the Wildcats last season.

Brian Anderson - CougCenter

WSU lines up in their base defense — which is functionally a Nickel (or 4-2-5) — with four defenders at the line of scrimmage with their hands in the turf, a MIKE head up on the offensive tackle to the strong side of the formation, a WILL head up on the center, a NICKEL splitting the distance to the inside receiver, and a secondary shell.

Wazzu utilizes the free safety, in this case No. 18 Shalom Luani (boundary side), to fill the alley on the weak side. Former defensive coordinator Mike Breske did similar things with Deone Bucannon, even occasionally relying on him to fill the alley to the strong side of the formation.

To get away with something like this, you must either tackle extremely well or have a fast enough defense that other players will recover and rally to the ball carrier at contact. Arizona makes the right play call here to get their stud running quarterback one-on-one with a safety.

The left side of the offensive line blocks down, with the center and right guard combo blocking the defensive tackle while the right tackle kicks out the defensive end. The tight end in the slot pulls across formation. The left end man on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked — he is who the QB is reading.

If the end drifts out in space or freezes, Randall hands the ball off and the running back can either hit the B gap to the right or hit the natural cut-back lane setting up to the left.

If the end crashes, like he does here, Randall will pull the ball out of the mesh and get in a footrace with everyone to the edge.

Playing on an island is no weird thing for a boundary corner in any defensive system, especially when you see your FS fly up and know you have no help over the top. Charleston White (No. 4) shows a typical zone alignment pre-snap and quickly adjusts his eyes as Luani crashes the LOS.

You’re going to spend some time manned up in that position, no matter what defense or scheme is being deployed. What you can’t do is be totally clued out of the backfield with a mobile quarterback.

Randall beats Luani in a footrace to the numbers — White gets rather easily blocked —and continues on for another 50 some-odd yards.

That’s the razor edge with Wazzu’s defense. When they’re all playing fast and flying around, good things can really happen. When they aren’t, one missed run fit — like a FS getting beat to the outside — and a simple play turns into a home run. A similar thing happened last week with Ryan Nall’s long touchdown, where the Nickel wasn’t in a good run fit and missed a tackle. That’s all it took.

So far this season, WSU has faced 58 quarterback rush attempts (10 of them sacks) and held them to 135 yards (sack yardage included). Eastern’s Gage Gubrud has been the only quarterback to actively try to run the ball on the Cougs, and he racked up 77 yards on 14 carries (2 sacks). WSU hasn’t really faced a true running threat at quarterback yet this year.

Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins has 71 rush attempts on the season (sacks removed for these numbers) for 594 yards — 8.4 YPC — and 8 touchdowns. The next closest not-injured player is about 30 carries, 430 yards, and 8 TDs behind Dawkins.

You should have a pretty good idea where the ball’s going with him in the game.

What has me concerned about the Arizona Wildcats

Playing with fire: WSU’s last three games have finished within a touchdown. The last two of those opponents are statistically much worse than WSU in about every metric. It’s true that OSU is playing over their skis a little and Tempe is always tough on the Cougs, but not putting away bad opponents can bite you in the ass if you do it enough.

Arizona is, according to advanced metrics, the worst team WSU has played since Idaho. Don’t make life hard on yourself. Put it away early.

QB with legs: With running back Nick Wilson out due to injury, Dawkins is their best play-maker on offense. Wazzu is quietly turning into a solid defense against the run but they haven’t faced this type of challenge yet.

Anthony Gimino, who covers the Wildcats for Tuscon News Now with “AG’s Wildcat Report” and is the editor for the great Lindy’s Football Annuals, returns to our corner of the internet to kindly lend his expertise.

What are you most confident in about the Arizona Wildcats?

“I'm confident Rich Rodriguez didn't forget how to coach offense. I'm confident Arizona will be a competitive team once it has a semblance of health/experience at quarterback and running back (wait 'til next year?). I'm confident that the offseason overhaul of the defensive coaching staff will pay off with a stronger recruiting class in 2017 and a continued more-aggressive scheme once those players are in place. I'm confident nothing stays the same for long in the Pac-12 South.

“I'm confident that I like all the personnel matchups for Washington State in this one.”

What has me confident about the Cougs

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Falk is Bruce Willis: Unbreakable like that M. Night Shyamalan movie. Die Hard like that, well like the title. Arizona is 76th in sacks per opponent pass attempt and 106th in DL havoc rate. This would be a good game to keep No. 4’s jersey clean, even if he keeps getting up like the Terminator if it was also Bruce Willis.

Nickel and Dime-ing: Arizona ranks 55th in standard down S&P+ pass defense. They don’t tend to give up many huge plays, but do allow teams to shred them, ranking 85th in defense success rate. That falls down to 109th and 114th respectively on passing downs. WSU is 37th in overall passing S&P+ and 11th in standard down success rate, which is where they spend most of their time operating.

No Long Rushing Plays: Arizona is second in the conference — only 1 play behind behind Oregon — with 20 rushing attempts that have gone over 20 yards. Dawkins has nine of them, and 18 of his attempts have gone over 10 yards.

Wazzu is currently leading the conference with the fewest opponent rush attempts that have gone 10-plus yards (23). They rank fourth nationally in stuff rate, sixth nationally in rushing first downs per game allowed (5.5), and lead the conference in fewest rushing yardage per game allowed (113.8) while ranking fourth in yards per carry (3.91).

So, Mr. Gimino...

What about Wazzu should concern Arizona?

“Just about everything. The Arizona defense of coordinator Marcel Yates is more multiple, more aggressive, does more pre-snap shifting ... but it's simply overmatched here. UA's issues are personnel-related, not scheme-deficient.

“Usually, the best way for opponents to attack is straight-ahead at a too-small defensive line that usually starts two 247-pound former walk-ons in Parker Zellers and Justin Belknap. High-motor guys, for sure, but they have to play too much.

“The running game is not the Cougars' bread-and-butter, of course, but if that's the way Mike Leach wants to deploy his big offensive line and stable of backs, then that's a wise move, too.

“Otherwise, Luke Falk threw for 514 yards against the Cats last season and not much has changed. Gabe Marks and River Cracraft are better one-on-one than anybody Arizona has in coverage. Junior cornerback Dane Cruikshank has been solid on one side, but season-and-a-half starter DaVonte' Neal struggled, lost his job on the other side and is now questionable because of an ankle injury. It would be nice if Arizona could rotate multiple guys through its secondary, but it doesn't have the depth for the fresh legs needed to chase Washington State's receivers all game.

“It's typical for Arizona's defense to be good in the first half, before wilting in the second.

“And that's in part to the offense's inefficiency and inability to put together long drives to give the defense a break. With converted receiver Samajie Grant set to make his second start at tailback, you can see where RichRod's offense is operating on four flat tires. It won't be fun or easy for these guys to establish a running game against WSU's defensive line.

“Expect Brandon Dawkins to start at quarterback. He missed too many throws against Stanford last week as he returned from missing a game due to a concussion, but he's the lone Arizona X-factor, able to break off long runs and make something out of nothing. It's unknown how much Anu Solomon can do as he returns from a knee injury; he played two unsuccessful series last week in his first action since the season-opener.”

How I see the game playing out

Wazzu decides not to limp out of the starting block this time. If the Cougs are contenders in the North like we think they are, this game shouldn’t be particularly close after you get halftime soda pops at your tailgate.

Arizona is again playing through injuries at quarterback, running back, and middle linebacker this season and what they have on deck hasn’t really been able to get it done for them in a rebuilding year.

Vegas sees the Cougs winning 40.5 - 25.5 (WSU -15, O/U 66) and the advanced metrics have it a little lower scoring at 38.3 - 26.0 and a 76% win probability. I’m even more bullish on the scoring.

Falk has a ruthlessly efficient day, completing near 80 percent of his passes for over 450 yards, which was mostly underneath stuff. Jamal Morrow and James Williams surprise with huge days, both getting near 100 yards on the ground.

Final Score: WSU 56 - 28 Arizona

And, Mr. Gimino...

“Washington State has too many weapons. The Cougars have played a trio of close games recently; this should not be one of them. The Wildcats' hope is to flip the game via turnovers, but that hasn't been their forte. They have forced 10 turnovers this season -- six coming against Grambling State and one happening last week via interception when Cruikshank ended up fumbling the ball right back to Stanford.

“Somehow, that's Arizona's season for ya.

“Washington State 42, Arizona 21.”

Huge thanks to Anthony for coming back and helping us out this week; you can follow him on twitter here and catch-up on all his reporting in AG’s Wildcat Report here.