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2016 in Review: WSU slays the ASU Tempe Dragon

A kickoff return for a touchdown by Robert Taylor sparks a 37-32 win over Sparky.

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

The 2017 season is just a month or so away. Let’s pass the time by rewatching last season’s conference games.

Nuss: Can I just say that, heading into this game, I was 100 percent convinced we were going to lose?

BA: I didn’t think much of ASU and their secondary. Wazzu hasn’t won there since 2004, dropping the last six in a row, and only won at Arizona State once between 1960 and I get not feeling like WSU could win in Tempe.

Nuss: It wasn’t just that — it was the three previous wins. Beating Oregon still felt like a big accomplishment, beating Stanford exacted some revenge, and that UCLA game was just a slugfest. Beyond the Tempe Dragon, this just felt like a prime letdown game.

If you want to watch along with us and you have a Pac-12 Network subscription, here’s the link for the video on demand.

Drive 1

Nuss: Hahahaha ... ASU scheduled us for homecoming. Also went with the Sparky unis.

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

BA: They should never not wear Sparky.

Nuss: Right?

BA: Adidas has committed many Crimes Against Football, convincing ASU it was good to take away Sparky has got to be among its most horrific.

Nuss: Oh no — I actually forgot how they scored the TD. RIP, Marcellus Pippins.

Nice hold on Dylan Hanser helped Manny Wilkins get the edge, too.

BA: That drive looked a lot like a lot of drives from 2015. Just got tore up by veer plays. Inverted veer (where the mesh point reads for the QB to keep it inside and the RB to take it outside is opposite a standard zone read play) gashed them pretty much the entire 2015 season. Portland State did it for that whole second half. Being reminded of that sucked real bad.

The touchdown was more your garden-varietal zone read where Wilkins called his own number to make something from nothing.

This play set up real simple. Zone blocking up front, pulling FB to seal the edge to the field side and a nice read on the DE/playside LB for the QB. It looks like a choice between the bubble and a zone run play up the gut, where the QB could either give it or follow/bounce behind it.

At the mesh the QB reads that both the OLB and safety stay home, WSU has a 3-on-2 advantage outside. And that the interior line has not gotten any kind of push.

In fact, WSU made a giant mess of the line of scrimmage, so the QB does what good players do and just decides to make a play out of it. There’s decent blocking to the near side and the QB beats defenders to the edge with a very athletic hurdle of Pippins, who had him more or less dead to rights in the open field.

Nuss: The good news is that we got a lot better at adjusting and limiting its effectiveness than we did in 2015. It looks like we actually defended this well — I think Wilkins was supposed to follow the H-back, but Hercules Mata’afa blew it up.

BA: That was one of his options. The interior line of scrimmage was just chaos so he made a play.

Nuss: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This drive did not do much to convince me we weren’t going to lose.

Drive 2

Nuss: Three-and-out with the announcer getting the names wrong on two of three plays. Inauspicious!

BA: I hadn’t realized how many times play-by-play guys confused Martin Jr. and Marks. We’re averaging two a game, I think. It’s too bad Marks had to go to ground to make that second down reception, he had some space around him.

Drive 3

BA: Much better. Good pressure on that last play and for Luani to realize he had contain that side of the pocket. Made a great play getting off the block and corralling Wilkins at the edge.

Nuss: And again, Mata’afa blew it up.

BA: He’s pretty good at wrecking havoc inside.

Nuss: I think I didn’t realize at the time just how many problems he was causing because he wasn’t piling up a ton of stats. That’ll be something to see if he can improve on this year — where he’s the one to finish the play he creates.

Drive 4

BA: WSU is normally great at running the RB screen. That ASU middle LB ran right across the face of Sorenson and O’Connell to nail Morrow. Weird for either of those guys to miss someone like that, let alone both of them to miss him.

Nuss: Also looks like if they get that guy, Morrow is running for a while. On the heels of the successful shovel pass screen on first down, they must have wanted to slow down ASU’s aggression a little. Too bad it fell apart from there on this drive, culminating with Falk heaving a ball to some open grass to avoid getting destroyed by a free runner. Also, ban the rugby punt.

Drive 5

Nuss: Wilkins out. Another backup QB for the defense to feast on! Cool little zone blitz on third down where Mata’afa drops off the line just a little like a spy. But again, after being a problem for the runner, he isn’t quite able to make the play.

I think it was supposed to be a running back screen, but Isaac Dotson ruined it.

BA: Hard to tell exactly what that was supposed to be, but yeah that’s a good guess. Hercules was definitely held as a spy, after that first drive you gotta figure WSU was concerned with stopping the QB runs above all else.

Nuss: Well, with two linemen five-plus yards downfield, I hope it was supposed to be a screen. Also, maybe I’m asking too much of a defensive end to be able to make a play in space like a linebacker?

BA: Not if that defensive end is Mata’afa. Usually just getting in the way out there is good enough, allow some time for secondary guys to come in and help.

Drive 6

Nuss: Gross. Second time the protection hasn’t picked up a blitz correctly. Pretty lucky ASU’s offense is trash.

BA: Yeah nothing really getting going for the offense.

Drive 7

Nuss: Lol. Back to half rollouts for the opposing QB. Fourth week in a row? Worked so well for the other three!

BA: Well, when you can’t hold the pocket you gotta do something to get the QB some time. ASU has mobile guys back there they’d like to provide a run option for on most pass plays too.

Drive 8

Nuss: Man, these Pac-12 have really been practicing their pass defense skills. Second week in a row!

BA: Offense really started to click here. Y-cross on third down right behind a blitz, followed up with a nice in route from Thompson with guys sucked up for a Martin shallow cross. Get a swing to Wicks for big yardage after that and things really started to look up.

Nuss: This drive was classic Luke Falk. So patient — it’s like the previous drives didn’t even happen. Now, if he could just learn to flip it past the line of scrimmage out of bounds instead of taking a two-yard sack, we’d really be on to something!

BA: He really handled a myriad of pressures well that drive. When he’s on, it’s really impressive how well he can move within the pocket to buy time. ASU started playing real soft behind their pressure and Falk was able to negotiate a couple of real nice throws.

Nuss: Unfortunately, another blown blitz protection on third down led to a field goal. No way for him to escape that one.

BA: Yeah, the touchdown was overthrown to Cracraft on the play before. Had a step on his guy on a seam route.

Drive 9

Nuss: About the only thing holding me back from “welp” mode at this point was what happened in 2015.

BA: Here’s where you see that inverted veer pop up again out of ASU’s “Sparky” (aka Wildcat) formation with Kalen Ballage taking a direct snap. They mixed in power and veer out of that formation. The TD was straight counter, they pulled a backside guard and had two lead blockers out of the backfield running backs. WSU sucked a safety up and didn’t maintain gap discipline, that’s usually how big running plays happen.

Drive 10

Nuss: AHEM

No kicker tackle this time!

BA: He tried real hard to get it. Run It Back Rob had too much speed.

Nuss: I don’t want to read too much into a moment, but dammit if this isn’t the kind of stuff that makes an individual feel real dumb for being so pessimistic. It’s incredible how Leach’s “play the next play” has taken hold so thoroughly in the program. (It also helps when you’ve got players of a certain skill level to actually do this kind of stuff.) The last drive was solid, but unfulfilling. Then you give up a massive breakdown on defense. All the “momentum” is with ASU ... BUT MOMENTUM IS RUN IT BACK ROB’S NEXT KICK RETURN.

Drive 11

BA: Hercules is beating the tar out of whoever lines up in front of him. This has been an extremely dominant game for him. Not quite finishing plays on his own but absolutely derailing whatever ASU is planning to do offensively.

Drive 12

BA: Really nice drive there. WSU was mixing deep shots with little Y-sticks and RB swings that all picked up good yardage. Morrow trucking and carrying a guy five yards was a solid demonstration of how physical their spread offense can be.

Nuss: This drive really showed how devastating the running backs can be. Twice Falk found them singled up, twice the guys (first Gerard Wicks, then Jamal Morrow) turned what first looked like a short gain into a longer play. And then ... I mean, if you’re going to keep blitzing, at some point Falk’s gonna get you.

BA: They love this mesh variation in the red zone, where the outside receivers run posts instead of corner routes and aim to beat corners — who are looking at keeping outside leverage — inside.

Nuss: With zero safety help, this is too easy.

BA: A lot of zone defenses have those safeties reading the No. 2 WR (the second one in from the sideline), so they see mesh and jump up.

Nuss: After all that, we’re heading into the locker room with a lead. Take that, Tempe!

Drive 13

BA: You feel pretty good going into halftime with the other team not even really playing a quarterback anymore.


Drive 14

BA: That was a helluva drive to open the second half, really aggressive passing game. ASU was mixing in a bunch of blitzes, like they do, and Falk looked like he wanted to go right at them. They’ve favored that Martin Jr. vs. Gump Hayes match-up to the outside a few times now.

Nuss: This is the kind of stuff that gets me so excited for what Martin is going to do this year. He murder killed this DB.

Also, can I just point out the job Cole Madison did in helping Morrow pick up this fourth down earlier in the drive? He gets a small piece of the first guy, then rolls two yards down field to chop the crashing backer, who probably wasn’t making the play anyway, but still — he’s awesome.

BA: The push the whole line got on that play was fantastic. And...4th and 3 is a strange down and distance to elect to not have A gap covered. DT are head up on LG and inside shade of RG, and there’s no backer in the middle of the field.

Nuss: Look like Falk checked to the run, which is exactly what you want.

BA: That’s a five-man box that’s severely out of alignment. Guessing the DT head-up on the LG should be playing inside shade, he and the backer are doubled up on that B gap.

Nuss: Instead, the DT over the RG runs himself right out of the play, O’Connell has no problem sealing his DT, Dillard goes and shoves a linebacker five yards downfield, and Eduardo Middleton pulls with basically nobody to block. I think that’s a lot of words to say “ASU done fouled this up.”

BA: Yeah, WSU could’ve zone blocked this instead of Power and it might’ve worked out even better. With Center and LG combo-ing the DT then hunting the playside backer. Either way, pretty solid example of what coaches mean when they talk “alignment-assignment” on defense.

Drive 15

Nuss: Whoopsiedoodle!

BA: Not gonna lie, I thought this game was over after that.

Drive 16

Nuss: Not an ideal drive following a turnover in ASU territory.

BA: ASU blitzes so much cause it works sometimes.

Drive 17

Nuss: Rollout ... incomplete ... handoff ... rollout ... incomplete. I’m not sure why ASU has gone away from Sparky at this point, to be honest. It’s the only thing that’s worked for them since the starting QB left.

BA: Yeah, it’s how they ended the half and WSU didn’t really prove they could stop it with any sort of regularity. Staff probably thought they got Sterling-Cole coached up enough at halftime to run their normal offensive package.

Drive 18

Nuss: And then sometimes when you blitz, this happens.

BA: Little hot route Y-Option. Surgical drive. They worked ASU’s secondary on that series, threw a lot of different things at them and Falk hit them all.

Nuss: That was a quintessential Air Raid drive — it really didn’t matter what ASU did. They blitzed, they dropped eight ... Falk just picked them apart. The Sun Devils did not know which end was up on so many of these plays.

I love what the analyst said during this replay: “What makes that spread formation so difficult is that your eyes as a defensive back will play tricks on you. You’re seeing ghosts crossing your face, and it causes you to hesitate as to what your actual responsibility is on the play.”

BA: There’s that, but also motion caused the safety (No. 20) to call for a roll to man coverage then the backer (No. 58) didn’t take BOYS (Back Out Your Side) and left his corner out to dry.

Drive 19

BA: Took two series to realize Sparky was a good idea.

Nuss: And these guys get paid to coach football. SMH. Seriously though, I remember not being all that concerned after this drive. We were doing what we wanted on offense, and ASU needed two completions from Sterling-Cole (both of which were nearly incomplete) and a trick play to pick up any chunk yards. Felt like there was no way that was going to be enough to win the game in the 4th quarter.

BA: Not a huge fan of watching the defense get torn up by a Wildcat formation...again. There was a little DOOM settling in for me if it kept happening but that drive probably stalls out if a DB doesn’t fall down on a razzle dazzle play.

Nuss: Exactly. I’m not sure 7 rushes for 18 yards (no gain/2 yards/5 yards/6 yards/3 yards/1 yard/1 yard) is getting “torn up.” I felt fine.

BA: I meant if they got it rolling, and playing goaline D against it five times is different than the middle of the field.

Drive 20

Nuss: Just remember — Gabe Marks isn’t fast. Everyone told me so.

BA: That 10-yard stiff arm was beautiful.

Drive 21

Nuss: Again, minimal commitment to the Sparky. Maybe there was a thought that there just wasn’t enough time, down 16, to go Sparky. But it’s only two scores, and it’s certainly not beyond WSU to 3-and-out quickly at an inopportune time. Instead, they just let Sterling-Cole throw some more incompletions. Shrug, I guess.

BA: Got behind the chains after that first down play went nowhere and tried to catch up by forcing it downfield. Which is never really where you want to be.

Nuss: Sometimes I forget what it’s like to not have someone who can competently throw the ball. It sucks reeeeeaaaaaaalllllllll bad.

Drive 22

Nuss: There’s the three-and-out, followed by the kind of comical special teams play I’m not sure we’ve seen since the Paul Wulff days. A big, stupid mistake by WSU was literally the only thing that could get ASU back in the game.

BA: Goddamnit

Nuss: There might have been a block in the back on Madison near the sideline, but I won’t complain — we deserved every yard of that monstrosity. I’m pretty sure I just rolled my eyes after that one. Stupid ass rugby punt.

BA: Not finishing tackles continued on to the two-point conversion attempt so that’s cool.

Nuss: It’s kinda like we hit the off switch, thinking the game was in the bag. NEWS FLASH — WE ARE WSU. NOTHING IS EVER IN THE BAG.

Drive 23

Nuss: Now I’m squirming a little. One score game, loads of time, and we’ve spent two drives going backward. About the only good result here was that we didn’t lose Falk’s fumble ... and that Falk wasn’t knocked out of the game.

BA: Does momentum exist? Sure feels like ASU has all of it right about now.

Drive 24

BA: Great to see the defense bow up in the redzone. And for ASU to call a couple of reverses that weren’t going anywhere.

Nuss: I think we saw on this drive why they didn’t go to Sparky more — their package was fairly limited, and when they tried to mix it up with a little trickeration, it looked pretty clunky. Took a miracle throw-and-catch (by ASU terms) to keep the drive alive, too.

Drive 25

Nuss: Whew. Remembered how to kill a game. Two great throws to pick up a pair of first downs did it — a little slant to Martin, then a little corner to Cracraft. Ballgame.

BA: I love shotgun Victory Formation.

Nuss: I was told Mike Leach didn’t know how to manage a clock at the end of a game.