The plan was to breakdown my biggest game plan-level takeaways from the previous week and then look ahead to the next opponent every week during the season. With our cancelled season opener, I shifted gears a little bit this week.
Last Week: Cal’s Pressure Packages (Kinda)
What I would’ve been keeping my eye on against Cal (well... I guess what look at every week) is how well we match up in the trenches, and especially in pass protection. From what I know of their schemes and backgrounds, the I think that the Cal defensive brain trust of Justin Wilcox, Tim DeRuyter, and Peter Sirmon have similar defensive principles as Coach K and Coach Lake. They’d totally love to have a stud pass rusher dominate the game, keep the pressure packages straight forward up front, and play suffocating coverage. However, they also have a deep play book to compensate when such pass rushing talent isn’t on the roster. Cal has some talent, experience, and creative pressure schemes, so we might have had some issues up front if our game had been played.
I think it’s safe to say that UW has the pure talent advantage in the trenches, but we don’t have the individual experience, or experience as a starting group of five, that would make this a surefire advantage. That group inexperience is why I would’ve expected Wilcox to make the focus of their game plan to challenge the three new offensive linemen we will be breaking into the starting line up. The best way of doing that is creating chaos and confusion.
Simple 4-man pressures from the defensive front are straight forward. Even if you throw in some movement (such as slanting or twisting), these are basic pass rush stunts that are common at the HS level and shouldn’t really challenge collegiate offensive linemen. Where you start to rapidly add confusion is bringing LBs and DBs, and Wilcox is pretty adept and designing these types of pressures. Much like our own defense at times, many of the Cal LBs and DBs are asked to be multi-functional and are integral parts of the pressure package. Much like using a fullback or pulling guard to insert another gap on a run play, these LBs and DBs create uncertainty where pass rush threats are going to be coming from. Mixing that with Cal’s smaller/athletic DL that can slant and twist effectively makes this whole protection game a bit challenging.
Cal got a an easy sack last year late in the 1st quarter on a slot DB blitz from the opposite side of the field from the RB. Even with Nick Harris and Salvon Ahmed immediately rushing towards the pass rush threat, the pressure got home to Eason. My guess would’ve been that we’d see a similar type of wide angle rush to keep our OL on their toes.
Wilcox & DeRuyter are also very good at identifying pass protection checks, and they use these to manipulate our offensive line into showing protection looks that they want to see. By doing this, Cal is able to occupy certain linemen and keep speedier LBs as free rushers on the QB. Again looking back to last year’s game, in the clip below you can see the OL is occupied by the defensive front, but a backside feigned rush by the OLB pulls Ahmed away from Evan Weaver looping around the left side of the OL to get pressure.
Finally, in the play below, we see a similar blitz design that gets Weaver a free rush around the edge, but this time its against an empty formation. Usually, this would mean a quick developing play, and edge pressure could usually get help from Harris, who routinely pulled to edge pressure like in the first clip. However, Cal cleverly feigned pressure on the left of the OL, which forced the OL to zone slide to the left, and a slant by the Cal DT kept Harris occupied.
As you can see, this Wilcox & Co. are pretty clever in how they bring pressure, and we would’ve had our hands full. You can also see that pass protection isn’t an OL-only problem, and the effectiveness of our RBs in accounting for pressure (whether in protection or as receivers) will be critical. I have confidence in our individual linemen, and I like that we have Wattenberg as a steady hand at center, but that doesn’t mean we will have all the answers next week against OSU.
Bonus note for the die-hard OL fans: I’m curious to see if Wattenberg will be asked to pull out to the edge in pass protection like Harris. I don’t expect him to be nearly as effective if he does, but I don’t even really expect him to be asked to do much of it.
This Week: Attacking OSU’s Defense
Fortunately for the Beavers, their opponent last week was able to field a team, and their game was played. While we weren’t as lucky, we do have a bit of information to prepare off of for next week. Realistically, we should be able to simply lean on our talent advantage and squeeze out a win next week, but like most other UW fans, I don’t want the heart burn that would go along with another close win like last week (I already get enough with the Seahawks). That doesn’t mean we should put together an overly complicated game plan, but we should focus on the areas that we have the biggest advantages.
First and foremost, we need to lean on our size advantage in the trenches. From what I saw this past weekend, OSU’s starting nickel/dime package had DTs James Rawls (6-2, 268) and Isaac Hodges (6-0, 265), and stud OLB/DE Hamilcar Rashed (6-4, 245) and OLB John McCartan (6-5, 226). More likely than not, this won’t be the same group that we’ll face, especially if we go with a heavier 2-TE or I-formation look, but I’d look at going with a lighter personnel group if we can draw such a small defensive front to match. On average we’d be looking at a 40-50 lb advantage per person, and even if they went with a more typical 3-4 front against our base personnel, the Beavers only have one DL over 300 lbs, and two over 290 (shout out to my guy Alex Skelton from the 808). We’ve been pushing for size up front, now is the time to use it.
Not only should we focus on getting physical up front, but we should also get our counter punches ready. Rolovich’s WSU team pounded the ball pretty effectively against OSU’s light front, and the Beavers countered by bringing the heat with their LBs with much more frequency. Leaning into this aggression, I’d look for quite a few traps, counters, counter pitches, and screens to come once OSU starts to blitz. This won’t necessarily be explosive, but you could see the Beavers getting antsy in their conservative 2-high coverages and getting desperate. Catching a blitz off-guard with misdirection can yield big plays.
If/when they start to commit to heavier boxes and go with 1-high coverages, we NEED to take our shots. WSU showed that their DBs are beatable, but the conservative coverages keep them protected. Even when we get 1-on-1 looks, OSU has a surprising amount of size at DBs (only 6 of 20 DBs on their roster are under 6-0), so our recent classes of big WRs might not be a surefire advantage. The more important factor in taking our deep shots will be keeping the aforementioned Hamilcar Rashed off of our QB when we take those shots, and then praying our QBs & WRs have their chemistry sorted out.
Good ol’ Johnny is a feisty one down in Corvallis, and I expect a fight, but we should be feeling confident.
Bonus Note: I’m setting the Coach’s Corner prop bet of the week at O/U 225 rushing yards. If WSU can get 229, then the thinking would be that we should be able to get 250+. However, if we’re as good as we think we are, then we might get the young guys in the game early.