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WSU vs. Cal: How will the Golden Bears try to defend the Air Raid?

Utah tried a variety of tactics. Very little of it worked.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things I've found the most enjoyable about watching the Air Raid blossom this season has been watching other teams try and figure out how to slow it down.

Most teams won't have success defending the Air Raid straight up -- something Oregon tried to do much of the night -- so they elect to primarily either rush three and play a soft zone in the secondary in an effort to close down the passing lanes, or they rush five or more in an effort fluster Connor Halliday before any explosive plays can open up.

Utah tried all of it. None of it really worked.

I went back and charted Utah's rushers to try and get a macro look at the Utes' strategy. There are, however, a couple of caveats. First, I used the "Football in 60" broadcast, which is wonderful for efficiency but not as great for this kind of charting because there were a number of individual plays left on the editing room floor -- plays deemed inconsequential to the narrative of the game. I didn't count how many plays it was, but I estimate it was upwards of seven or eight.

Second, it sometimes was difficult to tell exactly how many rushers Utah was sending, because while the Utes' had three down linemen on every down -- up until the final series when WSU was going to run -- they often employed a "man under" strategy where a linebacker was shadowing a running back; he'd often move toward the line at the snap, making it look like he was rushing at first. When the throw comes out quickly, it can be tough to tell what his actual intent was. If a linebacker was moving at the line at the snap, I counted him as a rusher unless it became clear he had man coverage responsibility.

Here's the breakdown of the number of times Utah rushed a given number of players, in histogram form:

Utah WSU Rush Chart

As you can see, Utah generally was conservative in its rush schemes, electing to play it safe. That's not a huge shock; the Utes believe in their ability to get to the QB playing straight up, and the weather conditions probably led Kyle Whittingham's staff to believe making WSU complete tons of passes in front of coverage was a good strategy. It's also worth reminding you that some of those four-man rushes likely were three-man rushes that just looked like four-man, as explained above.

It's also worth noting that just because Utah was rushing three doesn't mean they were necessarily being conservative, as you'll see in a few of the following GIFs. Like Oregon, Utah ran a lot of the aforementioned "man under" where it was man-to-man coverage with safeties over the top.

Here's where it gets interesting. Check out the trend in the number of rushers as the game went along - play one is on the left, play seventy-whatever is on the right:

Utah WSU Rush Chart

As the game got closer, Utah sent blitzers with increasing frequency. This is the part where I remind you that Halliday was 22-of-27 for 267 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the second half.

Let's take a look at what some of this stuff looked like -- because you're going to see it again. Probably tonight.

Interception Two

Here, the Utes stack the line -- not a common look in the game. The two linebackers on the outside rush, with the middle linebacker appearing to blitz also.

Utah Halliday INT2 Presnap

Only one problem: The Mike doesn't actually blitz; he peels off once he sees the running back engage in pass protection -- it's likely he had man responsibility on the running back -- and reads Halliday's eyes. Connor never sees him.

Now that you're removed from the emotion of that game, you can see this for what it is: One hell of a play.

Utah Halliday INT2

Touchdown Two

Here was a more common look: Three down linemen, two linebackers in the box. As was the case about 35 times, one guy "rushed" while the other guy dropped.

Utah Mayle TD1 Presnap

Only ... well, he doesn't really rush. He does what the defender did on the interception, trying to read Halliday's eyes and get in a throwing lane. Just one problem. Halliday has plenty of time to work from right to left against what is effectively a three-man rush, giving Vince Mayle the opportunity to beat his man.

Utah Mayle TD1

Utah Mayle TD1 Replay

The Lost Rusher

Similar look as before. Halliday knows he's got man coverage after Calvin Green's man trails him in motion. And, again, one of the backers is responsible for the running back. The other backer?

Utah Lost Rusher Presnap

He's trying to play the eye game again with Halliday. I haven't paid close enough attention to know if other teams have employed a similar strategy, but I honestly don't recall it. Utah did this fairly frequently; it's like they had the scouting report from a year ago that says he has a tendency to lock on to receivers. In this instance -- as in the Mayle TD above -- it really just serves to remove what otherwise could be a useful defender from the equation. It's 11-on-10, and again, Halliday's got enough time against a well-enough-blocked three-man rush:

Utah Lost Rusher

Man, that arm.

You Can't Stop Cracraft

All that other stuff isn't working? Let's bring six!

This was a critical third down, and Utah decides to bring the house - really as much of a house as you can bring against four wide receivers without going cover zero, anyway - in an effort to get to Halliday before he can get off the throw.

Utah Cracraft 1 on 1 vs 6 rushers PRESNAP

That leaves every wide receiver singled up, and right now, that's just pretty much a disaster.

Utah Cracraft 1 on 1 vs 6 rushers

Halliday could have gone to Galvin, too. But hey .... that Cracraft kid is pretty good. And one play later, that Mayle guy showed that he's pretty good, too.


Your guess is as good as mine as to how Cal will try and defend the Air Raid. They'll mix it up, but the reality is that unless a driving rainstorm opens up tonight shortly after kickoff, you'll probably just have a lot of fun watching Cal flail away with its tactics.

This is the Air Raid at its best: It doesn't really matter what the defense does.