Washington State Football Offensive Preview

The Cougs look to bounce back from a thorough dismantling by USC.

After a 3 week hiatus due to coronavirus-related reasons (including the starting quarterback, Jayden de Laura, contracting it), Washington State returned to action Sunday against USC and looked to be a shell of the team they were before. Washington State showed that they had the offensive firepower to keep up with Oregon and Oregon State in their first two games, but struggled to get anything going against USC. In a season that amounts to a glorified series of exhibition games, Washington State QB Jayden de Laura looked like a player that had been out for weeks: he struggled to find his rhythm, his timing routes with his receivers were all off, he was not confident in his reads and was often late with the throw, and he even struggled to run the ball.

As if that wasn’t already bad enough, Washington State has been missing their best player all season due to an injury: RB Max Borghi. Had he been playing, this offensive preview would likely have revolved around him. Borghi is likely the most explosive back in the entire Pac-12. He did not make the trip to LA, but he returned to practice recently, and there is a chance that he could be making his 2020 debut against Cal. If you’d like to see clips of him, you can always check out last year’s preview.

With all the other craziness that’s been going on, it falls to the third paragraph to mention that, oh yeah, Washington State has a new coach. Nick Rolovich brings to Pullman his Run-and-Shoot offense (although most people call it a “run and pass” offense, but sometimes also a “gallop and shoot” offense). Like the Air Raid before it, the Run-and-Shoot offense looks to spread defenses out (e.g. with 4-receiver sets) to always find an open man, although it will utilize different concepts than the Air Raid to do so. It is likely Jayden de Laura’s familiarity with the offense that helped him win the starting job as a true freshman: de Laura was a two-time Hawaii state champion with this offense (hailing from the same high school as Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa), so WSU was at least able to hit the ground running with their new offensive system.

Quarterback

Although I may have expected before the season that this offense would revolve around Borghi, it has since become apparent that QB Jayden de Laura will be what drives this offense. It’s also tough to tell if I should use pre-Covid or post-Covid clips here (it’s the difference between a ‘meh’ throws and bad throws), because who knows how quickly de Laura can return to form.

Let’s start with some positives. Jayden de Laura is a high-effort player. Here he is putting his body on the line as the lead blocker for his running back— how often do you see that?:

Jayden de Laura is a dual-threat quarterback (maybe a younger version of UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson or ASU’s Jayden Daniels), and the threat of the QB run is enough to keep defenses honest. Here he sells the pump-fake to buy time for a first down scramble:

QB Jayden de Laura gets S Talanoa Hufanga to bite on the pump-fake to run for a first down. The flag was against USC, either defensive holding or drop-kicking a baby on the sidelines, I can’t remember.

However, he does have some ball security issues. I noticed that this has become increasingly common with mobile QBs, but you can’t run between the tackles as you palm the ball in one hand, that’s just asking for a strip-sack or forced fumble:

Washington State still has some very talented receivers (thanks to Mike Leach, who had something like 21 wide receivers on the roster at one point), and de Laura can certainly make a good enough throw when the receiver gives him room to work with:

QB Jayden de Laura is a true freshman, so I don’t want to judge him too harshly for this throw, but this one has absolutely no business being thrown:

Oregon and USC tried two very different approaches against de Laura: Oregon would often rush 3 and drop 8 into coverage, while USC would bring blitzes and extra pressure. The Run-and-Shoot offense is one of those where you’ll eventually find an open man given enough time to throw, whereas de Laura seemingly struggled when faced with pressure.

You can probably chalk up this throw to rusty play:

WR Renard Bell beats CB Chris Steele deep and a well-placed ball here is a touchdown, but QB Jayden de Laura throws it over the wrong shoulder of Bell. Note CB Olaijah Griffin (#2) rushing in after the play to talk trash after doing nothing.

But this one is harder to write off:

QB Jayden de Laura makes a bad read and a bad throw for an interception by CB Olaijah Griffin, who then celebrates by dancing seductively on his teammates.

QB Jayden de Laura had plenty of time to throw the ball (although he’s only reading half the field), but he doesn’t let it rip until DT Marlon Tuipulotu comes free from his blocker. This was de Laura’s second interception in a row (the first was the result of a nice defensive play by S Talanoa Hufanga, although partially the result of not enough zip on the throw he was trying to make), and so it’s possible that his confidence was shaken at this point (or perhaps it was the literal stomping Hufanga gave de Laura after one play— and no, I am not joking, it somehow didn’t merit a flag from these awful refs). But if that was the case, here’s a throw from before his confidence could plausibly have been shaken:

This throw is so bad that I can’t even tell what went wrong here. Usually it’s a miscommunication on the route between the QB and WR, but I don’t think there was any route a receiver could run to catch this ball. I think USC brought so much pressure that de Laura just lets this throw go early. It will be interesting to see how Wilcox’s defense attacks de Laura. We all know the success Wilcox had against the Air Raid, combining the best of both worlds in regards to dropping extra men into coverage or bringing extra pressure: Cal would often bring 4 after the QB, but also vary where extra pressure would come from, so it would feel to Gardner Minshew or Anthony Gordon that there was more pressure than there was, thus triggering an early throw against a defense with solid coverage. I was impressed with some of the offensive concepts that WSU ran to get WR Travell Harris or WR Renard Bell open against Drop-8 Coverages, and so I do think I’d prefer to see Cal get after de Laura.

Let’s take a look at the last play de Laura ran:

This was the play that led me to believe de Laura’s confidence was shaken. I do appreciate that de Laura kept his eyes downfield looking for the pass (without seeing the routes (4 verts?), it’s impossible to know if he should have ran the ball here), but this looks like a gunslinger that has suddenly turned gun-shy: you can’t sit in the pocket this long and not make a decision (or even throw it away). He was pulled after this play, and the backup QBs Gunner Cruz and Cammon Cooper led the final 4th quarter drive— a 16-play, 93-yard, 11 minute drive that ultimately resulted in a touchdown against USC’s backups. Gunner Cruz looked like the (redshirt) freshman in his first college game that he is, but I can post a couple of clips in the comments if there is interest.

Running back

Although losing Max Borghi is a huge loss, WSU has still managed to run the ball pretty well thanks to the emergence of Deon McIntosh (who had a grand total of 16 carries last season), who has been averaging 101 yards per game so far this season. Deon McIntosh has decent (but not breakaway) speed, but I think where he excels is in fighting for yards after initial contact. He’s also a patient runner who does a good job evaluating the blocks ahead of him.

McIntosh rarely goes down on initial contact:

And while he’s not a running back, I liked this run by WR Travell Harris:

I guess I was just surprised to see WSU run the wildcat, something I can’t recall Mike Leach ever doing (it was rare enough seeing running backs used in the run game as is). WSU does keep a fairly balanced pass/run attack, so we can expect to see a healthy dose of RB Deon McIntosh (and hopefully not Max Borghi).

Receivers

Travell Harris and Renard Bell are the top two receivers here, and WSU has relied on them heavily: they are actually the #1 and #2 receivers in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game. Both of them are excellent athletes, and have been doing their best to make QB Jayden de Laura’s life easier by frequently getting wide open.

It’s pretty clear that QB Jayden de Laura has a lot of trust in these receivers:

This is a “go get it” throw from QB Jayden de Laura to WR Travell Harris— de Laura trusts that Harris will be the one to come down with the ball. This was also a nice route Harris ran against CB Isaiah Dunn.

Harris and Bell are both playmakers, and WSU favors a shorter passing attack that allows them to create their own yards after the catch.

For example, I think pretty highly of Oregon safety Verone McKinley III, but WR Renard Bell is probably the first person I’ve seen make him miss this badly:

There is an element of scheme that helps these receivers get so open. Let’s take a look at one play as an example. Watch the top of the screen:

This is a switch route combination: the outside receiver runs a post route as the inside receiver runs a wheel route. Switch concepts can force a defense to show their coverage and defenders to define their leverage (which should make the reads easier on the QB). This creates a bit of a natural rub between defenders, and it can also make it difficult for the defenders to check into a banjo coverage (essentially, when we switch receivers, we switch responsibilities), which results in the receivers being able to find the open spots in zone coverage.

With that in mind, take a look at this play:

It looks like a bit of hesitation here in when the defenders switch responsibilities, which gives WR Renard Bell time to get open in the endzone for the touchdown.

Harris and Bell are both very good route runners, which you can see in a lot of the previous clips.

Lastly, you’ll see a lot of vertical routes in this offense, and it appears that WR Jamire Calvin is the go-route specialist. Here Calvin burns CB Olaijah Griffin, and although this isn’t the world’s most accurate pass, it’s close enough that he should probably have been able to haul it in:

WR Jamire Calvin blows past CB Olaijah Griffin, who was caught daydreaming about which sexy gyration dance he’d like to do next, but Griffin makes up for it with some tender shoves after the play.

Conclusion

There are two big unknowns heading into this game: will Max Borghi return, and what will the weather be like? As mentioned before, the return of Max Borghi would be a big boost to their offense, but another potential factor may be the weather, as it will definitely be very cold, and there is a chance of snow for the game. The last time Cal played in snow? October 19, 1996, against Washington State— a game #19 Cal (5-0) lost. Cold hands can definitely affect a quarterback’s throws, and snow often leads to run-heavy games. I definitely think Cal is the better team in normal times, but who even knows what natural disaster may befall the game. Hopefully, Cal will be ready.

Go Bears!