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Interactive Preview: Pass rush takes center stage for WSU vs. California

Can the Cougar pass rush get after Goff and the Cal Bears to lead WSU to victory?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It often felt in 2014 that if the Cougar offense did not play nearly perfect that WSU was going to have a difficult time staying in games, let alone winning them.  While the defense hasn’t faced a huge test yet (Rutgers is 86th and Wyoming 106th in offensive S&P+) the Cougs have already forced five turnovers and the improved pass rush has me thinking they may be on their way to taking some pressure off the offense instead of adding to it.

WSU opponents are averaging just over 25 pass attempts a game (77 total), but Kache Palacio and company have racked up an impressive nine sacks so far. The chart below shows drop backs per sack (sacks + opponent pass attempts/sacks) to get a sense for how well the Cougs are getting after the QB in relation to their opportunities. They sit at 9th in the Power 5 and 11th nationally sacking the QB every 9.56 passes.  The narrative gets even rosier when looking at Football Outsiders opponent adjusted sack rate where the Cougs currently rank 7th nationally.

The California offensive line is giving up a sack every 18 passes in 2015 (43rd in the Power 5 and 75th nationally), but Jared Goff was sacked every 9 attempts vs UW last Saturday, getting dropped 5 times on 41 throws. With Goff averaging 38 passes a game, the Cougs should have their opportunities to prove whether the pass rush is for real on Saturday.  The Cougar defense is currently ranked 108th nationally in defensive S&P+ and 94th in pass defense S&P+, so they’ll need to consistently harass Goff and his 11th ranked passing offense if they’re to have a chance to win a game that is likely to be a shootout.

With the exception of Texas Tech, which has only given up one sack on the year, the WSU offensive line is out performing their Power 5 Air Raid brethren (Cal, Baylor and West Virginia) in protecting the QB.  Joe Dahl and company have only given up four sacks on 156 pass attempts -- about one every 40 throws -- landing 13th in the Power 5 and 19th nationally in drop backs per sack given up.  The chart below shows the top 15 (you can scroll to see more rankings) for the Power 5.

What we’ll need to see vs Cal is that extra time to pass turn into extra yards.  While the Cougs may be outperforming those other prominent Air Raid offenses in keeping their QB’s on their feet, they’re getting smoked in Yards Per Attempt.  Baylor and West Virginia are 1st and 4th in the Power 5, while Cal and Texas Tech are both in the top 15.  Luke Falk is currently getting just over 7 yards per attempt, which lands him at 43rd.  Not only are those QBs getting more out of their throws, they’re also seeing a higher percentage of their passes result in touchdowns.  Falk is a very accurate passer, but I think we’ll need to see him take more chances down field and get that YPA in the 7.5-8 range for the Cougs to have a shot.

The below chart looks at YPA by TD % (what % of your throws go for a TD). There is thought out there (CTRL+F Passer Rating) that these two stats together are a solid indicator of how well a QB is contributing to his team’s chances to win. You can lasso a group or select a logo to see their specific average or click a logo from the options at the bottom to highlight them.  The data is for the top 100 nationally in passing yards.

Vegas is a heavy Cal lean and after the Wyoming game I was too, but the Pac-12 feels like it's kind of a mess right now and I'm starting to feel hope creeping back in that the Cougs may have a shot to sneak a couple more wins out of this season than I originally thought. If the defense can do it's thing, we squib kick every kick off (just kidding, but maybe not) and possibly catch Cal looking ahead to Utah we could go down to Berkeley and steal one.