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The key to WSU’s defense? Limiting explosives

As Alex Grinch first showed us, and as we saw again on Saturday, simply not giving up the home run will take you a long way.

The bar for a Washington State Cougars defense to clear is not all that high under Mike Leach. Because the offense is almost always going to be at least above average, just about anything better than “bad” is going to be enough to help the program win a bunch of games.

This year, of course, the defense couldn’t clear the low hurdle of “don’t be bad.” However, Saturday’s beatdown of the Colorado Buffaloes offered at least a glimmer of hope that the season could be salvaged with a defense that contributes to victory rather than the alternative.

There’s been a lot of talk since Tracy Claeys’ resignation as defensive coordinator about “simplifying” and getting back to the #SpeedD philosophy under previous defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. As a layperson, I don’t know the ins and outs of schemes, but I do know what Grinch’s schemes accomplished that set it apart from both his predecessor and successor.

Consider the following two tables. The first is a rundown of chunk plays the WSU defense has allowed since 2012 (passes for 15-plus yards, runs for 10-plus yards);

cfbstats.com

You can see the immediate problem with this year’s defense — they’re giving up chunk plays at the worst rate yet under Leach, and by a fairly large margin. It’s been bad in the passing game, but the run game has somehow been even worse — roughly 1-in-5 runs produces first down yardage on its own. You probably knew this intuitively without looking at the numbers, but it really underscores the problems the defense has had all around.

But it also reveals why Grinch’s defenses were successful: With the exception of the 2016 pass defense, his teams did a good job limiting chunk pass plays to much greater degree than either Mike Breske or Claeys — even as the run defense wasn’t always avoiding getting gashed.

This comes into even greater focus when you expand the analysis to “explosive” plays — passes for 25-plus yards, runs for 20-plus yards:

cfbstats.com

These are the back breakers. These are the ones that shorten drives or end up going to the house. And Claeys’ defenses — both of them! — have been horrendous in this department. It’s crazy to consider that last year’s defense allowed more explosives than even Breske’s worst defense did, and it’s super weird to realize that we’re giving up explosives at the same rate as last year. (The chunk plays, which don’t break your back but are plenty damaging, are of course a different story.)

I suspect the reason we remember last year’s defense as being pretty good is that, despite finishing 7th in yards per play in the Pac-12, we were second in takeaways and third best in 3rd down conversions allowed. Those are drive stoppers that either keep teams out of the end zone or lead to field goal attempts, and points is the currency, so when you finish 5th in the conference in scoring defense, everything looks good.

However, the thing about those two stats — particularly turnovers — is that there’s a pretty good sized body of work to support the idea that defenses can only do so much to influence takeaways and 3rd down stops. And when you see those two things paired with a team that gives up big yards in the process, it’s reasonable to think that maybe there was a bit of “fool’s gold” to our assessment of 2018 — that there was a fair amount of randomness that worked in the Cougs’ favor last season ... and that bill is coming due in 2019.

I’ll bet you can guess what changed on Saturday!

Now, it’s pretty safe to assume that the weather played a role here — Laviska Shenault Jr. had what should have been an easy explosive TD after torching a corner, but Steven Montez badly overthrew him. And Montez was just terrible all around — with the way Anthony Gordon was spinning the ball, it was like an inverse Apple Cup. To that end, it’s tough to know whether this performance is all that predictive going forward.

However, it does put a fine point on what the Cougs need to prioritize. Grinch’s scheme was built on the idea that if you forced a team to execute, at some point a college offense is probably going to screw up — after all, there are a lot of bad quarterbacks out there! It’s likely also why Grinch’s defenses would sometimes get shredded by teams with excellent offenses led by good quarterbacks. If you’re WSU, that’s a trade-off you make in order to roll the dice.

It’s obviously it’s not as easy as saying “don’t give up big plays,” but it does lead you to think that if the defense can continue to improve its discipline and at least make teams work for their yards, they can have a fighting chance of surviving, even if the talent is a notch below what we’ve become used to.

The Oregon Ducks’ offense presents an interesting case for this weekend. They pick up lots of chunk plays — about the same number as WSU — but they don’t get lots of explosives: just 18 for the whole season, roughly half of what WSU has accumulated. As we found out last year against Oregon, Justin Herbert isn’t the most accurate downfield thrower. Additionally, the Ducks’ running backs aren’t the same kind as what you remember from Chip Kelly’s heyday. They’re very good and they run hard, but they’re not this:

Whether WSU has a chance on Saturday probably ultimately comes down to whether WSU allows Oregon to magically turn what is an efficient offense into an explosive juggernaut, or whether the Cougs can be disciplined enough to make the Ducks churn out yards with long drives. The Ducks can do that — in fact, they almost seem to prefer it — but it’s the kind of philosophy that can work in WSU’s favor: Oregon is in the bottom half of the conference in both 3rd and 4th down conversions. Make the Ducks work, put them in situations where they have to execute to stay on the field, get a little luck ...

You never know what might happen.

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