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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing No. 15 WSU vs. Arizona

Arizona v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The No. 15 Washington State Cougars battled through an atmospheric river to tally four touchdowns in their shutout over Colorado last Saturday. The weather conditions kept quarterback Luke Falk from a bounce-back game with a crazy stat-line, but the Cougar offense did enough good things — plus a couple of great things — to get the win.

That said, it’s not hard to win games when the defense doesn’t allow a crooked number on the scoreboard.

The Cougs (7-1 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) escape the oncoming winter in the great Pacific Northwest this weekend for 85 degrees and dry, desert air, as the Arizona Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) welcome them to Tucson for their Homecoming.

The game kicks off at 6:30 PM PT on Pac-12 Networks.

Arizona controls it’s own destiny in the South at the end of October. Whoever said they saw that coming is lying. The Wildcats have played 27 freshman through their first seven games, including 17 true freshman (via Brett Moore of the Illinois Sports Information Department). Most people saw that likely roster turnover this summer and assumed Arizona fans might need to wait this year out and afford Rich Rodriguez some patience.

The Wildcats hung more than 60 points on both Northern Arizona and UTEP — two of the worst teams in college football — and dropped close, one-possession games to Houston and Utah in their first four games this year. Things were looking kinda like people expected they would.

Then Colorado injured their starting quarterback.

Khalil Tate entered the game for Brandon Dawkins on the first series against CU and has been absolutely electric since. He’s rushed for 694 yards on 46 carries in the last three games alone. As Jesse Cassino noted, Tate’s touchdown runs have all been from long distance: 58, 28, 47, 75, 45, 71, and 76 yards.

RichRod had TecmoBo on his bench and no one knew it.

Offensively, the Wildcats are going to spread the field to run the ball — like Rich Rodriguez has done throughout his entire career — and what they do isn’t terribly complicated.

Jesse broke down the basic elements of a spread-to-run, zone-read scheme and the RPO (run-pass-option) threats Arizona presents — and how WSU is suited to stop them.

Here, we’ll look at a single play that makes up roughly 65-70 percent of Arizona’s total offense under Tate. No, that’s not an exaggeration.


Arizona will line up in this formation a large majority of the game. And run this single play the majority of the time they’re in this formation.

This is their 11 personnel, with one running back and one tight end — both highlighted in yellow above. Pay attention to whether they are on the same side of the formation. When the TE is on the opposite side of the RB, he will almost always pull and they will almost always run this power iso read.

Tate, of course, has the option of pulling it and keeping it himself on this play as well. And only Tate really knows where he’s going with the ball in his hands; he’s quite the improvisational runner.

They’ll add some tricks to dress this up — the main one featuring the slot receiver in motion to fake or take a reverse sweep behind the QB-RB mesh. And watch for the TE not pulling and running an arrow to the flat or an option to the middle of the field behind the linebackers; he should be the first key for what play is about to be ran.

When the TE is on the same side as the RB, they’ll do things a little differently. The play to watch out for is a power sweep by Tate to the strong side, but this is also where they spend the most effort getting the TE involved in the passing game.


Arizona’s TE trails the leading Wildcat receiver by a single catch with 22 receptions. With as much as the Wildcat offense forces strong safeties and linebackers to be aggressive in run support, the TE can often be forgotten and leak out into some open space in the intermediate part of the defense.

This is from their match-up against UCLA. Notice the RB and TE are on the same side. The OL slants away from the RB, but the TE goes out on an arrow route, leaving the playside DE in no-man’s land.

Tate pump fakes the TE and breaks off a 17-yard run. It could’ve gone for a lot more if a safety didn’t trip him up.

The other personnel group they really favor is this double TE, single back formation.

This is what it looks like.

Later in the game the Wildcats salted away the first half, sticking to this play and this formation almost entirely.

Play 1.

The offensive line slants away from the running back and the two TEs pull. Tate reads the playside DE on this, and the running back again has all the freedom in the world to carry it anywhere he sees a hole develop. Here the RB cuts to the left and finds himself one-on-one with a safety that barely is able to trip him up.

They ran this exact play four more times in a row. Here’s the RB going with the pulling action from his TEs on the fifth play of the drive that is the fifth time they ran this power iso read.

Arizona ran this formation another three plays with a Khalil Tate power sweep to the right, power iso read again, then another Tate sweep but with a receiver faking the reverse, before finally going empty set with 15 seconds left in the half ...

... where they ran an option off a fly sweep that Khalil Tate kept and didn’t turn into much.

The important key to remember with this Arizona offense is that the line will slant away from the RB side and they’ll pull two guys across formation. If you understand that, you understand close to two-thirds of Arizona’s offense under Khalil Tate.

The five times in a row against Cal wasn’t abnormal, either. They marched on UCLA running this power iso read on eight consecutive plays. If a defense can’t stop it, Rich Rodriguez will keep calling it.

So far, not a lot of teams have been able to stop it.

What has me concerned about Khalil Tate the Arizona Wildcats

TecmoBowl Tate: His stats are ridiculous and you’ve probably already gawked at them by now — 55 rush attempts, averaging 14.3 yards a pop, 10 rushes over 30 yards (tied for 2nd nationally behind Bryce Love’s 18), and the threat that any pass attempt can turn into something like this:

Sacks: Arizona is ranked 12th nationally in adjusted sack rate with Tate only getting dropped on 2 percent of his dropbacks. He’ll attempt roughly 15 passes a game and rush 15 times a game, and that freakish mobility has allowed him to escape pretty much all pressure thrown his way.

The biggest concern for an aggressive defensive front like WSU’s is that they’ll get to Tate and miss the tackle. That’s when things could go a little sideways.

XXXplosives: Arizona is the 9th-most explosive team and 3rd-most explosive rushing team rated by IsoPPP. They are third nationally in +30-yard plays behind Oklahoma State and Stanford with 28, and tied for first nationally with 27 rushing plays that have gone for at least 20 yards.

Despite being the 18th-best defense against the run according to S&P+, the Cougs rank 95th nationally against defending explosive run plays. They’ve given up 35 attempts for over 10 yards (65th) and 8 attempts over 20 yards, and one long, horrible mistake to Ronald Jones that’s probably skewing things quite a bit against their favor.

Anthony Gimino, who covers the Wildcats for returns to offer his expertise

What are you most confident in about the Arizona Wildcats?

“Two words. Khalil. Tate.

“Assuming you were looking for a longer answer, let's just go on to say that the sophomore quarterback makes all things possible for Arizona. I (somewhat) joked on Twitter last week after a dazzling touchdown run by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner against Florida State, that "Lamar Jackson out there looking like Khalil Tate." Naturally, there was some blowback from that — Hello, Louisville fans — but it wasn't too much later that Tate got his turn and breezed down the field for a 76-yard touchdown against Cal.

“That's three consecutive games for Tate with a touchdown run of 70-plus yards. ESPNStats told me that no quarterback had done that in at least the past 10 years. So, yeah, there's a Lamar Jackson skill-set there for Tate, who has shown no panic for an 18-year-old quarterback (he just turned 19 this week). He's not turning the ball over and taking what is there in the passing game, including ball-in-the-basket deep shots because defenses can't give a lot of help over the top due to the threat of Arizona's running game.

“No doubt: Washington State will be Tate's toughest test this season. On the other hand, his improv skills are a worthy counter-measure to the stout Cougars' defense. Tate makes all things possible.”

What has me confident in the Cougs

Ain’t Played Nobody: An argument that remains undefeated among college football fans. Let’s take a closer look at those opponents Tate has lit up.

NCAA Football: Washington State at California
You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Mr. Tate.
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
  • Colorado: 14 carries, 327 yards, 4 touchdowns. The Buffs are the 82nd ranked S&P+ defense and 91st against the run.
  • UCLA: 15 carries, 230 yards, 2 touchdowns. The Bruins rank 110th on defense and 73rd against the run.
  • Cal: 17 carries, 137 yards, 1 touchdown. Cal is the 71st best defense and ranks 90th against the run.

Wazzu is currently ranked 12th on defense and is ranked 18th against the run.

Now, there’s a little bit of “tail wagging the dog” in these stats because those teams played Tate and got torched by him ... making their rankings lower. Still, the safe assumption is that WSU will be the best defense Tate has faced by a mile.

Can’t be on offense the whole game: The Wildcat defense is giving up close to 30 points per game (86th) and yields 24 first downs a game (118th). They rank 85th in Passing S&P+, and — like the high number of first downs would suggest — are 106th defending against efficiency.

Back-to-back lackluster offensive outputs have dropped the Cougs in offensive advanced metrics, but passing game efficiency remains their biggest strength and something Arizona isn’t super great at defending. They’re also allowing opponents to convert a little over 48 percent of their 3rd down attempts.

Stemming: Jesse detailed how the shifts and stems along the DL upfront changes the reads for the quarterback and who the offensive line blocks on their inside zone runs — complicating things for an offense. Zona counters that a little by just sliding the entire line and turning the line of scrimmage into a churning blender that spits out running lanes.

Thing is, Wazzu’s front-7 shoots those gaps too.

They’ll shift and twist and stunt more than any team Tate has faced before, likely penetrating to the mesh point a couple times like they did against USC. Tate will have to make his reads faster than any game he’s played so far this year.

So, Mr. Gimino...

What about Wazzu should concern the Wildcats?

“That 69-7 victory from last season is hard to forget. When Luke Falk is in rhythm, there's nobody better in college football, and the Cougars against Arizona are capable of giving him the kind of clean pocket that leads to a 32-of-35 passing day, like last season.

“That said, WSU fans should see a different Arizona defense on Saturday. These young Wildcats can still get pushed around and passed upon, but this is a more athletic, more aggressive group that is better at applying pressure to the quarterback — especially with stunts up front from hybrid OLB/DE Kylan Wilborn — and creating turnovers. Arizona already has come up with 15 takeaways. That's one more than all of last season.

“Names to know: Wilborn, linebacker Tony Fields, linebacker Colin Schooler, safety Troy Young, cornerback Lorenzo Burns, safety Jarrius Wallace. All are true or redshirt freshmen who figure to play keys roles Saturdaynight and had nothing to do with 69-7.

“The task might be too big for them Saturday night, but this isn't the Arizona defense from last season.”

How I see this game playing out

Vegas has the Cougs as a 3-point favorite (as of Thursday night), with an Over/Under of 64.5, seeing the game as a 34-31 win by the Cougs. Bill Connelly’s advanced metrics think the Coug defense will be a little more stout with WSU winning 30.1-26.5.

I think Washington State’s offense returns to form in the desert, if for no other reason than they are sorta due.

This game will probably have fewer possessions than WSU is normally accustomed to, with Arizona averaging 71 plays and nearly 49 rush attempts a game, so touchdown drives will probably be kept to around five or six with how methodical the Cougs normally operate.

The Wazzu front seven gets after Tate. He’ll get his — like the Un-concerned Jeff Nusser said in his Monday After column — but if Wazzu can limit missed tackles, they should limit what Tate can do. Interior pressure right into the mesh point and edge contain rushing will be key for Wazzu. And don’t be surprised to see Hercules Mata’afa or Jahad Woods spy Tate on passing downs.

Final Score: WSU 38 - 24 Arizona

And Anthony...

“Washington State is the better team and the defense is legit. I get that. Who doesn't love Hercules Mata'afa? I think there's just as good of a chance that the Cougars win by three touchdowns as Arizona ends up with a victory. Let's put it this way: If WSU does no worse than break even in turnover margin, it wins.

“But there's also a really good, and surprising, vibe with this Arizona team right now. There's buzz, energy and increased expectations that should lead to the kind of atmosphere at Arizona Stadium — on Homecoming — that hasn't been seen much lately.

“Can Arizona turn a 69-7 loss into a victory one year later? Well, I did once see the Wildcats beat No. 1 Washington 16-3 a year after losing 54-0.

“I've been riding the ‘hot horse’ theory and picking Arizona in the past couple of weeks. Gotta keep riding that horse. I see Khalil Tate still doing Khalil Tate things while some freshman on defense puts Luke Falk on the turf and makes a game-changing play: Arizona 38, Washington State 35.

Huge thanks to Anthony for once again informing us about the Wildcats. You can read his coverage here, and follow him on Twitter here.