Happy Thanksgiving folks.
It’s Apple Cup week, and despite a seemingly lopsided match up in this year’s game, both teams have big stakes to play for. The College Football Playoff Committee finally bumped us up into the #4 spot in this past week’s rankings, and although we don’t completely control our own destiny, it appears that we will need to complete a perfect season to earn a berth in the playoffs. On the other side of this rivalry game, the Cougars are coming off a much needed rebound beat down of Colorado that broke a 6-game slide and kept their hopes of bowl eligibility alive. Between the high stakes for both teams and the rivalry atmosphere, this should be a more competitive game than outsiders might think.
The Scheme & Personnel
The 2023 season has been tough for the Cougars. After a solid performance in his first season as the permanent HC, Jake Dickert’s squad entered the 2023 season with expectations that the program was trending upwards. Early season wins against then-#19 Wisconsin and #14 Oregon State reinforced those expectations. However, since their bye week, Washington State hasn’t looked quite the same.
As an outside observer, much of WSU’s mid-season struggles were a result of the Cougs’ struggles to find a winning identity. Dickert, a former defensive coordinator, made a big shift in team philosophy this past off season to capitalize on Cam Ward’s talents. Their more explosive offense under new OC Ben Arbuckle masked defensive deficiencies in their early season wins. After losing key defensive players like Daiyan Henley in the off season, this is a Cougar defense that is still well-coached but isn’t quite as complete as it was last season. It’s also a defense that saw a few tweaks to their style of play under new DC Jeff Schmedding, and while the bones of the defense are the same as they have been since Dickert arrived in Pullman, there are a few noticeable differences in play calling. For context, last season I wrote the following about the WSU defensive scheme prior to the Apple Cup:
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.
By comparison, this season’s WSU defense seems more willing to sit back in coverage and let their front four generate pressure. DEs Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. have been one of the more productive EDGE duos in the conference with double digit TFLs each. WSU will still bring pressure from different angles, but it is a smaller portion of their call sheet than under previous DC Brian Ward. Blitzes will also come from less exotic looks for the most part. MUG looks were a key part of WSU’s defense last season, but it appears that we won’t see quite as much of it this week. Instead, we’ll see more variation in coverages on the back end that could still muddy Penix’s reads, but it’ll allow WSU’s LBs to play more alignment sound.
All that being said, WSU’s defense can be a bit boom-or-bust at times. Their philosophy on defense is to play fast and play aggressively against the run, and misdirection plays have posed problems for their defense when they over pursue fakes. They also have had issues matching up man-to-man in coverage when the pressure isn’t generated from the front four.
Keys to the Game
At a high level, WSU’s defense has similarities to our own defense. It’s better suited to shut down a passing game than a run game, and they’ll need to shift their play calling and structures to shut down a run-focused offense. They can defend both, but they aren’t comfortable doing both at all times. The recipe for success is getting a multi-possession lead early and sitting on it with the run game (duh). We can’t get greedy looking for the big passing plays on every play because that’ll match us up against their strengths.
On a more granular level, we do have the right pieces to neutralize their strengths. Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten are stalwart OTs that should be able to lockdown WSU’s edge rush, and our Counter run game, when paired with misdirection motions and RPOs, should be able to gain traction against their aggressive LB play. Don’t be surprised if we take a more methodical, ground-centric approach if WSU starts the game in conservative deep coverages.