While many things are different for the Arizona State Sun Devils this season, some characteristics remain the same.
Last year, the Sun Devils pass defense was especially bad. This year, that remains true, conceding 384.3 pass yards per game (8.94 per attempt). Though unlike the 0-3 mark ASU posted against teams employing an Air Raid offensive scheme in 2015 (losses at Washington State, at California, vs. West Virginia), the program is currently 2-0 against such units this year (wins vs. Texas Tech, vs. California).
Despite all of its woes defensively, ASU has a chance to pull off a trifecta of victories against Air Raid teams by defeating the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. However, Cougars head coach Mike Leach and his patented form of the offensive scheme presents a unique challenge for the Sun Devils.
Let’s take a look at what the Cougars bring to the table.
Head Coach: Mike Leach
Offense: Air Raid
Key Players: Luke Falk (No. 4, QB), River Cracraft (No. 21, WR), Gerard Wicks (No. 23, RB), Gabe Marks (No. 9, WR), Tavares Martin Jr. (No. 8, WR)
Key Players: Peyton Pelluer (No. 47, LB), Hercules Mata'afa (No. 50, DE), Shalom Luani (No. 18, S)
Washington State Offense
Mike Leach is a credited co-father of the Air Raid offense (Hal Mumme, Kentucky). ASU head coach Todd Graham said Monday that Leach’s version of the scheme is the best used today, noting there’s more balance in regards to play-calling in comparison to recent seasons.
The Cougars are still towards the bottom in the conference when it comes to rushing the football (their 185 attempts is the lowest total in the Pac-12), but there’s noticeably been more incorporation of the ground attack this season.
Washington State has a tendency of running the ball out of a split-back shotgun formation, featuring Wicks, James Williams or Jamal Morrow in the backfield. Quarterback Luke Falk will usually give the ball to a back crossing across the formation during an inside-zone carry.
Part of the reason the inside-zone play has found success is because of the wide split Leach’s scheme implements.
While this pits offensive linemen in one-on-one matchups, when able to win at the line of scrimmage or against three-man fronts, it allows linemen to reach the second level and create rushing lanes for ball carriers.
However, the primary purpose of these wide splits is to better serve the passing game, which is very much the focal point of the offense. The wide set spreads defensive lines out, creating greater distance from rushers to reach the quarterback. Likewise, it makes it easier for offensive linemen to identify what defensive linemen are doing during the play.
The wide split also theoretically creates cleaner passing lanes to throw to in an offense predicated on getting the ball out quickly, targeting the middle of the field. With savvy route runners surrounding one of the better quarterbacks in the nation in Falk, Leach’s offense is able to execute in each phase of the passing game.
The route combination most synonymous with Leach’s Air Raid, the Mesh concept, is still heavily utilized, as is the Y-Cross concept.
Against Stanford, I noticed Falk was able to target the middle of the field—short, intermediate, and deep—throughout the earlier stages of the contest. The Cardinal began to play to the tendency, and it opened up passes thrown toward the boundaries.
Against Boise State, Falk began the game dumping the ball off and getting it out quickly underneath to running backs and receivers on the perimeter, then as the game progressed began to target the middle of the field.
Whether it’s by design or not, one virtue of the Washington State passing game seems to only make another available in latter stages of games as defenses adjust.
Where the ASU defense needs to be careful
There are several things the Sun Devils need to do defensively in order to win.
The first being is don’t concede the deep ball. The Cougars have found success pushing the ball downfield, and the Sun Devils have been susceptible to it. Likewise, they can’t be fooled by the Cougars’ pre-snap formation shifts. Against Stanford, Washington State audibled into five different formations during a single possession alone. ASU’s communication must be at its best in order to avoid any miscues.
Graham’s unit must find a way to get off the field, too. As the guys over at CougCenter have pointed out, Washington State has managed to dominate time of possession and wear out opponents en route to a couple of wins already.
The Sun Devils must make tackles in space. Cougars running backs Wicks (227 pounds), Williams (199 pounds), and Morrow (201 pounds) aren’t the easiest to bring down, and tend to receive the ball off the edge both in the passing and running game. Martin and Robert Lewis are threats to break out big gains after the catch out wide.
Another key: Avoid matching up River Cracraft against a linebacker. He’s one of the best receivers in the nation. It hasn’t gone well for any team that’s tried it.
Where the ASU defense has the advantage
This is a game where the Sun Devils’ smaller, athletic down-linemen can have an impact, should they play aggressive, sound football. While Koron Crump (five sacks) may be neutralized on the edge by the Cougars’ wide split, this a chance for the interior members to make a difference.
Washington State Defense
The Cougars incorporate a base formation featuring three-down linemen: A nose tackle, a defensive tackle and a defensive end. Those three are joined by a rush end—a smaller pass-rushing specialist. There’s multiple looks where there are four-down linemen when Washington State incorporates a heavier look, too.
Graham had this to say about the Cougars’ defense on Monday: “They move, attack and create havoc. You can tell that the kids play hard, but they are an attacking group.”
He’s right. Watching the Cougars’ defense, its players fly around and are active. Even prior to the snap, there’s shifting and movement at the line of scrimmage intended to confuse the offense or flow directly into a play. This activity and attacking mentality is the reason the Cougars boast the top rushing defense in the conference, surrendering only 104.5 rushing yards per game (3.7 per attempt).
Where the ASU defense needs to be careful
Colorado’s Jimmie Gilbert had fun with the ASU offensive line last week. This week, that player could be Hercules Mata’afa.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker has logged three sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this year. He was outstanding against Stanford, torturing senior right tackle David Bright throughout the evening, beating him with both speed and power.
Considering the recent struggles ASU has had with controlling the line of scrimmage, the matchup with Wazzu’s aggressive unit doesn’t bode particularly well in either the running or passing phase.
This is a “prove it” opportunity for the Sun Devils’ offensive line—it’s performed well enough against average defensive fronts, but has struggled against better ones. Winning at the line of scrimmage should ultimately determine whether or not ASU can win this one.
The ASU offense must also take care of the football, as Washington State has intercepted nine passes, forced 11 fumbles and recovered six. The Cougars’ aggression makes them an opportunistic unit.
Where the ASU offense has an advantage
Only one of Washington State’s defensive backs is listed at 6-foot, which means ASU wideouts N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4), Jalen Harvey (6-foot-1), Cameron Smith (6-foot) and Tim White (5-foot-11) have a size advantage this week. The Sun Devils’ passing attack has held its own in earlier Air Raid matchups, and this week poses potential for the same to occur again.
Despite its strong rush defense, Washington State is ceding 278.2 pass yards per game (10th in Pac-12). If Manny Wilkins can get in rhythm through the air, it could turn into a classic desert shootout.
Games Viewed: Washington State @ Boise State (2016, Full), Washington State @ Stanford (2016, Full), Washington State vs. UCLA (2016, Highlights), Washington State vs. Oregon (2016, Highlights)
Editor’s Note: GIF app I use wasn’t cooperating this week, so sorry about that.