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Opponent Defensive Preview: Washington State Cougars

Snow isn’t in the forecast, but a stout Cougar defense might turn the Apple Cup into a slogging match anyways

Washington State v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Whether it’s been the Huskies’ undefeated home record this year, our best road win in 20 years against the Ducks, or our quick return to the CFP polls, by almost any measure, Kalen DeBoer’s first season on Montlake has been a resounding success thus far. However, a successful season isn’t complete without an Apple Cup victory. After last year’s Apple Cup antics, the Huskies are looking to get some revenge in Pullman, but Wazzu DC-turned-HC Jake Dickert’s defense is looking like one of the conference’s strongest units and is poised to slow down our high-flying offense.

The Scheme & Personnel

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After a strong performance as WSU’s interim HC last year, the Cougs removed the interim tag and kept Dickert as their new HC. Throughout his 3-year tenure in Pullman, Dickert’s defenses have punched above their weight by playing an aggressive style of defense. Their base defense is built around the popular 4-2-5 personnel and even fronts that have become ubiquitous in the conference, but it’s their combination of aggressive pressure packages and DL play with savvy, technically sound coverage on the back end that have elevated their play.

Much like Oregon State’s style of defense, WSU tries to create impact plays through scheme rather than talent. The Coug DL plays a ton of 1-gap techniques and aggressive pursuit from the DEs with the goal of creating maximum chaos in the backfield. This does make the defense susceptible to perimeter runs when the DEs over pursue, but the defense accounts for this by playing a mix of overhang alignments with their LBs and nickel DB, as well as a lot of run support from their CBs who play closer to the LOS than you’d expect for a team that leans on 1-high shells. These run fit tendencies also help set up Dickert’s zone blitzes that bring DBs and LBs from all angles. If the offense doesn’t suspect anything when a CB regularly lines up on the LOS or near the box, there won’t be an obvious tell when a DB blitzes at the snap.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Cal at Washington State Photo by Oliver McKenna/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From a personnel perspective, the Cougs are loaded with impact upper classmen and experienced transfers from smaller programs. LB Daiyan Henley is a RS Senior transfer from Nevada, and he’s been the statistical leader of the defense all season. With a nearly 40 tackle lead over 2nd leading tackler on the team (102 total), Henley has been extremely active. He also has the 2nd most sacks on the team with 4. Safety Sam Lockett III is another player to keep an eye out for. He’s one of the better tacklers on the team and leads the team in interceptions. Really, most of the starting defense is good at tackling, which is why it’s so tough to exploit their pass defense. In their zone blitz scheme, they cover fairly well, but even if you correctly identify the pressure and the soft spot in the zone, their LBs and DBs tackle so well that they aren’t a feast or famine defense despite bringing pressure as much as they do. According to PFF, the closest thing that they have to a weak link on their defense is DB Derrick Langford Jr.’s tackling and run defense where we might be able to exploit certain looks that bring him into the run fit.

Keys to the Game

Colorado v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

For our offense, the key to the game will be the offensive line and their ability to control the aggressive Coug DL. We seemed to have found a key schematic weakness against the Buffaloes last week that we kept attacking, and it resulted in our best rushing performance this season. We need to do the same this week. Oregon and Utah were both able to exploit the Cougar DEs’ aggressive style of play by leaning on counter and power run concepts that flip the script on the DE’s aggressive upfield push. On power and counter concepts, one blocker is kicking out the edge defender, and the second is leading the ball carrier through the hole to the second level. A DE that gets too far upfield widens the running lane for the lead blockers and more or less does the kick-out blocker’s job for them. This then leaves the DBs coming in run support too vulnerable to the lead blocker with a full head of steam. Those sorts of runs are in our playbook, but we haven’t used them very frequently. This week might be a good week to do so.

In the passing attack, WSU is very aggressive in jumping routes, and they are particularly aggressive against quick perimeter screens. To counter this, I’d look for a few more shot plays with double moves, and the only way that these plays will have enough time to develop is if we lean on our empty sets. This defense thrives on creating jumbled looks at the LOS where the OL and QB don’t know who is a true threat and who is going to drop into coverage. Our empty sets force the defense to spread themselves out and declare their intentions ahead of time. Even if they have a deep and experienced DL rotation, I’d rather see our OL take a shot at blocking them man for man rather than let Dickert’s scheming play a deciding role in the game.

If we can take advantage of a few key looks, we should be able to score near our normal pace. WSU is undefeated when holding opponents to under 20 and winless when opponents score more. Let’s drop 40 on them.

Go Dawgs!