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Opponent Defense Preview: Cougs

Big fan of apples.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Today, I’m thankful for not writing an intro.

Personnel and What to Expect

For starters, the Cougs’ opponents are averaging about 25 points per game. And as you’d expect, their leading tacklers are the linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers, both of whom have been with the program since the Obama administration.

Woods, in particular, is around the ball a lot; he has 35 more total tackles than Rogers in second place. Rogers, meanwhile, has a pretty decent sense for the ball in coverage, where he’s tied for the lead in passes defended with four.

This is also a team that has 20 sacks on the year — Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson lead the way there with five and 4.5, respectively, although there’s lots of other players on the team who’ve made a statistical mark in the pass rush too. Really, it’s not a one-man operation for the Cougs when getting after the quarterback.

When watching them play, this outcome feels pretty intuitive; their standard is four down linemen, they don’t look like they blitz all that often, and the pass rush approach as a unit is predicated more on quick movement and getting opposing offensive lines out of position rather than just overpowering the guy in front of each of them one-on-one. In other words, it’s not about one guy being an elite talent so much as the group’s stunts and confusion-sowing working together — whoever happens to get to the quarterback is just an incidental detail.

That’s not to say the Coug defensive line isn’t ever gonna line up and just bullrush the crap out of whoever’s in front of them — their 2-to-5 tech-ish areas actually can at times pull off, in the words of Frank Costanza, feats of strength. This isn’t their primary method of actually getting to the quarterback, but they can still force the him to feel a bit of urgency this way when the situation would be too risky to go less conservative.

Still though, their most productive approach is the first one.

The strengths and weaknesses of both their personnel and this philosophy are pretty much what you’d expect (and personally I’d argue there are more of the former than latter).

The pros:

  • Most basic: All else held constant, sowing chaos up front makes it more likely you’ll find an unblocked or only partially-blocked path to the quarterback.
  • Opposing offensive lines can’t just hone in on one guy who’s the biggest threat every snap since they can’t easily predict exactly where each defensive linemen’s likely to head post-snap.
  • Furthermore, even if you could do that, from a personnel standpoint there isn’t any one guy who’s so much more dangerous than his teammate elsewhere on the line. That’s not me talking smack on anyone, more so complimenting the unit as a whole.
  • Makes it harder for opposing offenses to quickly get the snap off if they want to play hurry-up because identifying pressure is less straightforward for the quarterback/center.

Aaand cons:

  • The continuous stunting can get guys out of position and leave a lane open or have the Cougs completely lose control of the edge, which obviously gives opposing quarterbacks an easy escape route on the ground when that happens.

Obviously that’s more pros than cons, but that single con can bite WSU on occasion, especially against particularly mobile or particularly aware quarterbacks.

For example recently against Oregon, they had trouble with Anthony Brown on this, both on quarterback draws and when he’d drop back to pass only for the edge to become completely free or a massive pass rush lane to open up. In the case of designed runs for Brown, that added the extra issue of Oregon’s offensive linemen clearing out the way through the second level of the defense — often with minimal resistance due to the Cougs’ defensive line movement — and WSU having real difficulty corralling him from there.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up the stats for this while typing those last two paragraphs, and my gut of “Gee they’re really having trouble with Brown on the ground” was very much confirmed as he had only 12 less rushing yards in that game (123) than passing yards. Ouch.

That actually segues well to another thing, which is that the Cougs have been pretty stumped by pulling offensive linemen in general, especially against Oregon. Granted, it’s not like anyone — particularly a linebacker who tops out at 235 lbs — sees a 300+ lb man running at them and is like “Oh yay, exactly what I want to deal with right now!”, but the Ducks’ power running plays hit the Cougars really hard. Even discounting Anthony Brown’s 123 rushing yards, they gave up almost 100 yards to two different running backs. (And it pains me to say this, but for as unreliable as Oregon’s passing game is, when they get their guards pulling it’s excessively fun to watch as just a fan of football.) Washington’s old running scheme under Chris Petersen would crush this defense, but this is isn’t Washington’s old running scheme, so...

Behind all this, from what I’ve seen their pass coverage tends to go softer man or zone on early downs and then get more press-y and physical on 3rd (or 4th), especially in those awkward distances of three to five or so yards where it’s not that optimal for passing but also too long for most coaches to have the guts to run it.

In one way the secondary reminds me of a tightened up version of Colorado’s secondary: A good, disciplined quarterback will be able to mostly pick them apart, but they take advantage of impatient, ill-advised, and inaccurate throws. Basically, they might not create a lot of havoc under normal conditions, but they are quite opportunistic when their opponent makes mistakes. This is backed up by the fact that they have the 7th most turnovers generated in the country with 13 fumbles recovered and 10 interceptions.

Bottom Line

This defense isn’t necessarily amazing at any one thing, but they don’t have one super blatant weakness. The end result is that they’re pretty reliable overall more often than not.

I think all three of Jalen McMillan, Terrell Bynum, and Rome Odunze could have a solid albeit un-flashy game, but that depends on Morris or Huard or the ghost of Warren Moon or whoever not making dumb or inaccurate throws. It also depends on the offensive line not getting bamboozled by disguised pressure, which I’m skeptical of; while their personnel and fronts are different than Montana’s 3-3-5, WSU’s general philosophy up front is still quite similar as far as keeping offensive lines guessing.

Under the right approach, the Dawgs would be wise to be balanced but with a slight emphasis on the run given what we’ve seen from WSU’s difficulty against agile linemen getting into space — but you can’t just install a whole new offense in the middle of the season and the Cougs have been better against uncreative, Donovan-esque running games. Granted, Junior Adams has called two better games than John Donovan ever did, but the foundation of Washington’s running game still plays into the Cougs’ hands (paws?) more than, say, Oregon’s did.

So with that in mind, I feel like simple quicker throws should be the base of the gameplan. From there, a handful of explosive routes will open up, and it’s whichever quarterback’s job to A) not make dumb throws under duress and B) take advantage on the ground when the edge is cleared or WSU loses pass-rush lane discipline.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.