Washington State Football Defensive Preview

Check the weather forecast for Pullman. It's going to be an interesting football game for the Bears...

Photo Credit: Calbears.com

Jake Dickert was hired by Rolovich to rebuild the WSU defense that was, sans the tenure of Alex Grinch, ranked at Sonny Dykes levels. He apparently made enough of an impression in 2019, his sole year as Wyoming’s DC, for first year Wazzu coach Nick Rolovich to put his faith in him, with the Cowboys finishing 11th in the country in points allowed per game (17.8). Wyoming was even able to pull off an upset over SEC opponent Missouri during that season. The team hired a highly performing coach out of Wyoming who built the Cowboys defense into a top 30 SP+ unit (sans passing success rate 76th). However, he only coached the whole defense for 1 year learning from Scottie Hazelton (now DC at Michigan State, DC at Kansas State the year before) as the Safeties coach. Hazelton was LBs coach with the 2014-2016 Jags defense (pretty bad Gus Bradley stretch with the team) which indicates that the Seahawks 4-3 Cover-3 inspiration is in the books. 

When he inherited the Wyoming defense he kept it the same 4-2-5 base, which is not optimal given the possible inclement conditions for the game this Saturday and a Cal 22 personnel run-heavy grouping. This 4-2-5 base relies on 2 defensive ends who won’t be dropping into space as much as in the past and add the aforementioned Seattle Cover-3 and Tampa-2, both of them schemes with the middle of the field closed (closed-ish with Tampa-2 where the MLB/ILB drops into the deep middle zone between the safeties who are in a Cover-2 look). The weakness of Cover-3 is the seams, see the space between FS and CBs (see below). Despite having 8 in the box (four DL, two LBs, and two DBs) the 2 DBs could be a weakness in the run game due to lack of size in run fits. 

Below the Tampa-2 shows the MLB dropping deeper than in a Cover-2 scheme to take away the vertical seam with the ability to deepen the drop to cover the middle of the field. Fun fact: it is called the Tampa-2 due to Tampa Bay’s use of this scheme despite its roots with the 1970s’ Steel Curtain. Brian Urlacher won many accolades being the MLB in this scheme with the Chicago Bears under Lovie Smith. This scheme is a “bend-don’t-break” type and is familiar to the Golden Bears since Lovie Smith brought it to Illinois who we faced in the Redbox Bowl.

As we head into the “regular” season “finale”, we find ourselves in the peculiar situation of evaluating a team with only a 3 game sample size. Simply put, it hasn’t been impressive, with the Cougs last in the conference in points allowed per game (36.3).

At Oregon State (28 points allowed, 451 total yards, 329 passing yards and 122 rushing)

Vs Oregon (43 points allowed, 581 total yards, 312 passing yards and 269 rushing)

At USC (38 points allowed, 287 total yards, 282 passing yards and 5 rushing)

For those wondering, yes the USC stats are correct. I double checked and triple checked, and amazingly it’s accurate. The Trojans were able to put the Cougs away in the first half, with the Trojans only producing 73 total yards in the back half. While through three games it seems like the passing game is the best way for the Bears to attack, it’s going to be a bit difficult given the conditions… At the very best, it will be cold and windy. At worst, there might be freezing rain. 

If you look at the roster and depth chart, it’s unsurprising Washington State has struggled on defense. This side of the ball is youthful and lacks prior starting experience. Coming into the game, I counted two total starts on the defensive line (both coming from Ron Stone Jr.). The best pass rusher on the team, Willie Taylor, was out against USC and will likely be out against Cal as well. The secondary returns one full time starter (Senior DB George Hicks III), and two partial starters (Senior Safety Daniel Isom, who started five games last season before being removed from the team as well as Junior Nickel Back Armani Marsh, who started three games). Against USC, there were also some depth issues in the defensive backfield as two key players (starting CB Jaylen Watson and backup Chau Smith-Wade) were announced as unavailable right before gametime. There’s some talent at linebacker: Senior Jahad Woods was an All Pac-12 honorable mention in both 2018 and 2019, while Senior Justus Rogers started all 13 games last season.

The good news for the Coug defense? Given the weather, regardless if it decides to snow or not, it will probably be difficult for the Bears to have a competent passing attack. In all likelihood, given the forecast you can expect Cal to be run heavy (yes, yes, I hear you already… Musgrave likes to run the football…). The good news for the Bears? There’s a lack of experience all over the place on this defense, especially on the defensive line. 

In conclusion, the weather should be conducive to a type of football game where anyone can win. Though this isn’t an intimidating defense, set your expectations low given the forecast for Saturday night.