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WSU vs. USC: Continued strong run checks will be important

What can running the ball well do for a passing offense? So very much. The Cougs will try to keep it up against the Trojans tonight.

Michael Chang

Some recent comments by Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday enlightened us to how head coach Mike Leach calls running plays in a game. He doesn't really. Coach Leach rarely, if ever, calls for running plays from the sideline, opting to let that decision be in the hands of his quarterback, who has a better view of things on the field.

In Auburn last Saturday night, Halliday called a run 18 times. Teondray Caldwell went for 53 yards on 7 carries (7.6-yard average), Marcus Mason added 43 yards on 6 carries (7.2 average) and Jeremiah Laufasa added some short yardage work for 10 yards on 5 carries (2 TDs). Halliday managed to tack on 14 yards of his own on 5 scrambles (1 sack).  This was light years ahead of the 29.1 yards (1.4 AVG) from last year.  It was even better than the 89.1 yards (3.81 average) Texas Tech had with Coach Leach (averaged across all seasons).

Jeff Nusser did a great job explaining how the check to a run on 4th down was successful in his video breakdown.  The most important thing is counting the number of defenders in the box. Nearly every time Auburn only left five, Connor called a run play. This will be key to watch against USC, which now knows that WSU is willing (and able) to run the ball, a distinct change from a year ago.

The shading of the defensive linemen will dictate which running play Halliday will choose, something he admitted to not understanding fully last season. He was spectacular at this against Auburn.


In the screen grab above, the left defensive end is head up on Rico Forbes and the middle backer is head up on center Elliott Bosch. The defensive tackles look to be in the A gaps, or shaded toward them. Halliday calls for an off tackle run to the right. Forbes down blocks to seal the edge and Bosch, Gunnar Eklund, and Joe Dahl take the guys in front of them. John Fullington is a little too held up in traffic to get to the middle backer, something he normally would do after combo blocking the left defensive tackle with Bosch (he has the better angle on a run to the right). All in all this was solid blocking up front, and an excellent cut to get upfield by Teondray Caldwell.


Here we see a different alignment from Auburn's dime package. Ends are outside shade of the offensive tackles, and the defensive tackles are outside shade of the guards with the backer head up on Bosch and responsible for the A gaps. Like what Jeff broke down for us on the 4th down play, Halliday calls for a run up the middle.


Past the backer, the nearest next level defender is some 15 yards downfield. Two defensive backs are in press coverage to the top of the screen; the outside corner is content to retreat and gives up outside leverage -- it looks like he wants no part of Kristoff Williams, who sticks with him almost 20 yards downfield. The other DB engages River Cracraft, who promptly drives him seven yards off the ball and just enough out of the play to allow Marcus Mason to bounce it outside. Bosch is the key here though -- this play doesn't go a yard unless he handles that middle backer, and Bosch had a really great day.


So what can this running game do for a passing offense? I'm sure you've heard it "keeps them honest" and other such phrases. Here's what that means.

On the first drive of the game, the Cougs faced a 3rd-and-4 on their own 41 yard line.  Auburn brought out their dime package to cover Wazzu's trips and set up like this:


Halliday counts his five in the box, knows he has hat-on-hat blocking to the first down, and checks to a run. Notice the outside shade of the defensive tackles and depth of the next level behind the backer.


Mason hits the hole hard and powers through to move the sticks. I can't catch the number of the receiver up top -- it might be Vince Mayle -- but he flat embarrasses that corner. I mentioned before that the increase in physicality across the board was extremely noticeable, and I'm really interested to see if they can keep that intensity up against USC later tonight.

After a few more plays the Cougs again faced a 3rd down and 4, now on the Auburn 44 yard line. Similar scenarios, but Auburn keeps it's 4-2-5 on the field and stacks backers in the A gaps.


The backers at the line don't get into coverage depth fast enough and Teondray Caldwell's route pulls the Nickle corner toward the flat, creating room for Rickey Galvin's stick route.


Notice Halliday work right to left. He eyes Kristoff's quick slant, but seeing that was covered, he moves to the stick route and lets it develop. Good blocking, good route, good ball, good third down conversion.

The personnel sets were different, and having two running backs in this formation probably helped convince Auburn to keep six guys in the box, but Wazzu had a hard time convincing anyone a run was worth defending last season.  That threat alone could force teams to use linebackers instead of extra coverage backs in certain scenarios, and in this offense, that's a huge advantage for WSU.

The Trojans play a base 52 front, but in all likelihood they will sub out an interior defensive lineman for an extra coverage back today, probably a second team safety based on their depth at corner. That means the front six will look very similar for Halliday in their nickel coverage. Further subbing out a linebacker for an additional coverage back in dime would leave five in the box.

WSU proved it can run the ball if you sit in dime; does that keep SC in nickel most of the game?  Can the Cougs get positive yardage on the ground against a 6 man front?

These will be things to watch for tonight.

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