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Opponent Offense Preview: Washington State

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A healthy Luke Falk pulls the strings for the Cougs’ pass-heavy attack.

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NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is the most anticipated Apple Cup in years, with perhaps the biggest stakes in series history. If Washington wins, they earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game, no questions asked, but first they have to slow down WSU’s offense.

The Basics

Everyone knows the Air Raid: a pass-first offense that utilizes 4-5 wide receivers, and wide “splits” from the offensive line (they stand farther apart than most OLs). This pushes the rush lanes wider for edge defenders, making it take longer to get to the QB, who is almost always in the shotgun. Here’s CougCenter breaking down one of the bread and butter plays of this offense: four verticals.

This offense also puts a lot of pressure on the QB. He has to be able to read defenses exceptionally well and hope the receivers are reading the same thing, because there are a lot of option routes. Here’s another article explaining that much better than I ever could. Lastly, Inside The Pylon examined a couple of Mike Leach’s Air Raid concepts in this piece.

One recent evolution in this year’s iteration of WSU’s Air Raid is the emergence of a solid run game. WSU is still passing more often than any other team in the country, but the pass percentage is down 8% from last year (73% to 65%). It remains a pass-first offense, but with the strongest OL they’ve had in years, they are also gaining yards on the ground. It adds a balance no one expected to see from this offense.

Quarterback

Luke Falk: 3,935 yards, 36 TDs, 7 INT, 7.4 yards/attempt, 71.4% completion.

I’m not sure there’s a more divisive QB in college football than Washington State’s Luke Falk. He’s a Heisman candidate for some, and just a “system QB” to others. Some see an NFL future; others laugh at the notion Falk could play on Sundays. Whereever you fall on the spectrum, this is certain: Luke Falk is an extremely accurate, confident, and patient QB who knows how to work the middle of the field and deep ball. And as much as we like to tout Washington’s ultra-efficient passing game, ranked #3 in the nation, Washington State and Luke Falk are not far behind at #15.

What jumps out about Falk right away is his accuracy, completing a remarkable 70%+ of his throws. He has a very quick, compact throwing motion and release, allowing him excellent accuracy on short throws. His game-to-game consistency is encouraging too, as he’s only thrown for less than 70% twice this year, and even topped 80% twice (with a 3rd game at 79%). He’s got great confidence in his pass protection and is more than willing to stand tall in the pocket and deliver strikes on routes that take a while to develop.

Falk is not the most mobile QB, and a strong rush moving him “off his spot” will have a major impact on his game. He’s big at 6’4”, but doesn’t have the lower body strength of a Brandon Dawkins, who shed tackles in the backfield for big gains. As accurate as Falk is, he can be susceptible to picks when he throws over the middle. Five of his seven interceptions have come from such routes.

Running Backs

Jamal Morrow: 82 carries, 543 yards, 4 TDs, 6.6 yards/carry

James Williams: 86 carries, 531 yards, 6 TDs, 6.2 yards/carry

Gerard Wicks: 78 carries, 441 yards, 11 TDs, 5.7 yards/carry

Raise your hand if you predicted this: heading into the Apple Cup, Washington State and Arizona State would be averaging the exact same amount of rush yards per game. That’s probably more an indictment against Arizona State, but is also a nod to the emergence of a complementary run game in WSU’s offense, adding 132.5 yards on top of their 380 passing yards per game. The run game is headlined by Jamal Morrow and James Williams, who combine for about 100 rushing yards per game. Morrow will consistently get about 5-8 carries a game, and has only once this season rushed more than 8 times in a game (13 for 122 yards against Oregon). He’s a very hard runner, and is their most consistent ground gainer. He’s also the team’s fourth leading receiver, with 44 catches for 468 yards and 5 TDs. He has recorded at least one catch in every game this year.

Williams’s carries are a bit more erratic, as he could get 11 or more as he did against Oregon State, Arizona, and Cal, or just one carry like he did against Arizona State. The redshirt freshman is probably the shiftiest runner of the three, and had perhaps his best game of the season two weeks ago against Cal (80 yards and a TD). He’s also a threat to catch it out of the backfield, with 41 receptions this year.

Lastly, Wicks checks in at 227 pounds, making him the big back. His 11 rushing TDs lead the team, second in overall TDs to Gabe Marks’s 12.

Wide Receivers

Gabe Marks: 74 catches, 755 yards, 12 TDs, 10.2 yards/catch

Tavares Martin Jr: 57 catches, 671 yards, 7 TDs, 13.2 yards/catch

Kyle Sweet: 23 catches, 324 yards, 2 TDs, 14.1 yards/catch

Robert Lewis: 23 catches, 247 yards, 3 TDs, 10.7 yards/catch

Isaiah Johnson-Mack: 31 catches, 235 yards, 1 TD, 7.6 yards/catch

Washington State boasts a deep and talented crew of receivers, as you would expect from a team that throws this much. However, the overall talent and experience of this group took a huge hit when River Cracraft tore his ACL two weeks ago. He was the second option after Gabe Marks, and actually boasted 3 more yards per catch than Marks. His loss hurts this group, but Marks is still the first option, and a good one at that. Good defenses can slow him down—see six catches for only 36 yards against UCLA—but he can also explode. He showed that with eight catches for 110 yards and two TDs against a better-than-you-think Oregon State secondary. He’s got a wiry frame and doesn’t have exceptional strength, but has great body control and hands, and is able to pluck the ball from the air. He’s also quick out of his breaks and can get separation, though he’s not a burner.

Tavares Martin is a good second option after Marks. He has good size at 6’1”, and his seven receiving TDs are second on the team. As a freshman he was a kick returner, showing burst and playmaking ability, and was one of the team’s most improved players over the last year.

Offensive Line

In years past, this part was easy, because WSU’s offensive line was so bad! Sadly for the Huskies, that is no longer the case. In fact, the Cougar line might be one of the best in the Pac-12. Even more surprising, Pro Football Focus ranks them #2 in the entire country. The advanced stats generally bear this out. Their power success rate is exceptional; when it’s third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, they get a first down or touchdown 85% of the time. Some other notable numbers include: 2.7% sack rate on standard downs (16th nationally), and ranking #7 in opportunity rate, which measures when the line “does it’s job.” Put another way, if there are five yards to be had on a run play, they get those five yards most of the time.

The results proclaim them a strong unit, but they’re also a big bunch. LG Cody O’Connell is massive, as are tackles Cole Madison and Andre Dillard. They are extremely efficient, able to handle man blocking (as opposed to zone) responsibilities, provide pass protecting for slow-developing pass plays, and get out to the second level on screen passes.

Final Thoughts

The formula for slowing down this offense is the same as it has been the last two years: pressure Luke Falk and play physical coverage with receivers. That’s obviously easier said than done, especially this year when the Cougars sport a formidable offensive line. Facing a healthy Falk will certainly complicate things, and I don’t think he’ll play as poorly as Peyton Bender did last year.

In some ways, Washington State’s overall offensive philosophy can be similar to Washington’s: use the pass to set up the run. If Washington gets caught sitting back defending the pass too much, the Cougars have the run game to hurt UW. The balance introduced to this offense, combined with a hugely improved offensive line, has made the Cougar attack more dangerous than ever. The Huskies probably won’t shut them down, but will take a big effort to hold them under their season average of 41.9 points per game.