Washington State’s Offensive Strategies
Washington State is visiting Autzen Stadium this Saturday. They are a dangerous team in that if you sleep on them, they will fill a pillow case with bars of soap and then repeatedly hit you over the head with them. They posed a problem to the Ducks last year and I’m hoping for there to be less stress this time around. In this post we are going to look at some of the basic plays that Washington State ran multiple times in their last game against Oregon State at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Due to the poor camera angles I could barely get any clear video of passing trees that involve every route, which would allow me to track the reads of the quarterback and what Jeff Tuel was keying on. Therefore, I’m not sure what plays were even run consistently enough for them to be a staple of the offense. However, there are clear looks at the diamond/full house offense that many PAC-12 teams are adopting as well as the triple option running attacks.
First, Washington State runs a spread offense. They will almost run exclusively out of a 2×2 formation, meaning two wide receivers on each side of the ball. The slot receivers will be off the line with the outside receivers on the line. Often times the running back will line up next to the quarterback in an outside zone read formation, but they will also line up directly behind the quarterback in a pistol formation and slightly behind and to the side as seen in an inside zone read formation. They don’t line up enough behind the quarterback for it to be called a pistol offense, so it may make more since to just call it a single back spread since there is so much variance in where the running back lines up.
The picture above is Washington State’s first play from scrimmage (A lot of these plays are scattered throughout the game but on Washington State’s first couple drives they ran almost every formation and their base plays, so we can look at these first reps). What you’re about to see is a triple option on an inside zone read.
They are first going to read the defensive end and the offensive tackle is going to release to block the outside linebacker directly behind the playside en. In this exact case, this was an incorrect read by Tuel and the run was stopped at the line of scrimmage. But look at the slot receiver who is motioning out for a bubble screen. If the outside linebacker bit inside and if the defense over pursued, then Tuel would hit the slot receiver.
What you’re seeing here is another inside zone read being run towards the short side of the field. This time though the Cougars are going to be reading the linebacker playside. If the linebacker backs towards the slot receiver the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back. If the linebacker tries to fill the hole that’s opening then the quarterback is going to swing the ball out to the left.
In this case we see the linebacker back away from the hole and respect the screen out to the left. Tuel makes the correct read here in handing the ball of to the running back.
Here’s the wrinkle though. In the first example the outside receiver was blocking the defensive back that was directly in front of him. Two drives later the slot receiver is going to block the defensive back lined up against the outside receiver. The outside receiver is looking for the pass on this play. It could be that when the Cougars are running a play to the short side they want to hit the outside receiver instead of the slot receiver catching the ball running straight towards the sideline.
The above picture is the full house or diamond formation. Washington State runs it out of the shotgun since almost every play they run is out of the gun. Stanford, Washington State, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and Cal have now all run this formation in conference play and you can see it pop up around the country as a wrinkle. If you look at the placement of the H-backs, they are not in a position to take a handoff from the quarterback as they are in front of him as opposed to next to him. Washington State only ran power plays out of this formation with play action passes. One was a half back lead where the H-backs ran straightforward and picked up the second level blockers. The second play was off tackle and featured a pulling tackle from the opposite side of the line pulling towards the play, effectively becoming a lead blocker, and the two H-backs running straight off the tackle. Notice where the defense is lined up though. This gave Washington a huge advantage numbers wise on the outside. All eight guys are very tightly packed inside the box and the safeties are playing over the top in a cover 2. This gives the receivers man on man coverage on the outside with the cornerbacks playing under and safeties playing over. The first touchdown pass the Cougars had was a play action off a half back lead where Tuel hit a receiver by himself in the end zone because the safeties bit on play action and gave up the top side coverage.
The above photo shows the Cougars in a two back set and will be a running play towards the far sideline. Notice the slot receiver is off the line, almost completely adjacent to the quarterback, and is awaiting a possible triple option read if the defensive end chases the running back.
At the mesh point the defensive end comes up the field to play the quarterback forcing the quarterback to hand off the ball. Notice though that the slot receiver is in a bubble screen in case the defensive end chases the running back, at which point Tuel will turn, read what the outside linebacker is doing (who is circled in yellow) and then either keep it or throw it out to the receiver who now has a clear path to the end zone since the outside receiver is blocking the defensive back covering him. In this play the running back took the hand off and carried the ball for a good chunk of yards.
Here we see another two back set near the goal line on 1st and goal. The receivers are bunched and the receiver who is in the backfield by the number 10 has motioned over. Since their backed up to their own end zone, the Beavers are stacking the box with no safeties inside the 4-yard line.
The defensive end comes up field to play the quarterback forcing the quarterback to hand off. If the defensive end was going to chase the running back he would go straight down the line but now he’s going to hesitate to make sure the quarterback doesn’t carry the ball through a big hole. The left tackle (in blue) has pulled and is a lead blocker for the running back. The back to the right of the quarterback at the start of the play (in red) is also a lead blocker. The receiver who motioned in to the play is going to do a “wham” block, which is shown by the yellow line (It’s not a great quality image but the WSU helmet you see blocking the side of the Beaver was the motioning receiver). The “wham” block allows the defensive end to come through and a blocker from the outside is going to block him towards the middle of the field, opening up a lane for the running back to run down the sideline. Washington State got the ball to the 1 on this play and eventually punched it in.
This formation has a tight end on the right and two wide receivers left with a running back in an outside zone read position headed towards the right. Notice how the Oregon State linebackers have shifted to the right to account for the tight end and the direction the outside zone read is going.
At the mesh point we see the defensive end is staying home so the quarterback hands it off (It’s better to let the running back carry it towards where the defense is waiting than take your chances one on one on the outside). This looks like a normal running play, but let’s look at the next frame.
The running back is doing his own thing right now hitting a hole, but look what the wide receiver is doing on the hash markers and yellow line. The receiver is about to cut towards the sideline in a five-yard out route and actually looks back towards the quarterback as if to receive a pass. If the defensive end had crashed towards the running back the quarterback would have kept and essentially played a 2 on 1 with the defensive back on that slot receiver. If the back runs to the quarterback Tuel could hit the receiver and then the outside receiver who is on the number 20 would serve as a downfield blocker.
Here we have a two back set but this is different from the earlier ones we looked at where the running backs were immediately adjacent to the quarterback. Here they are offset like an inside zone read. Washington State ran the standard triple option where they read a defensive end and either handed it off or kept it to eventually pitch it to the second running back. The linebacker looks like he is matched up with the slot receiver. In this instance we can see that a running back is running behind the quarterback, crossing the football before it is snapped and headed towards the sideline.
Now the ball is snapped and the linebacker still looks like he’s covering the slot receiver. This sets up a hat on hat situation for the blockers and is an immediate pass to the running back. The early motion causes the defensive keys to get messed up. If the defense doesn’t adjust correctly all the quarterback needs to do is get the ball quickly to the back who can now operate in space. The linebacker actually moved out with the running back as he was probably supposed to be covering him but the safety didn’t come up to the line of scrimmage to fill his spot, making an easy hat on hat block for the slot receiver.
The blockers are clearly a hat on hat and the ball carrier now has a lot of room to work. The defensive end is a good 15 yards away and he’s not going to catch a running back. One of the defensive backs has to either break away from his block and make the play, or the safety has to come up and make the tackle (I think the safety in this case may have been matching up on the slot receiver. It’s too hard to tell since we can’t see his movement before or after the snap due to the camera angle. Arizona State ran this play a lot this year and last year and it gave Oregon a lot of problems.
Washington State runs a very sophisticated offense. However, they struggle to execute all the time. After replaying the latest game there were plays that got broken up because of incorrect reads. Also, Oregon has seen the full house/diamond formation already. They have seen the early motion by the running back that messes with defensive keys and can make easy yards for the offense. As with schemes, it comes down to execution and preparedness. Fundamentals such as tackling are incredibly important since half the Cougar offense operates in space with only a few players by the sideline. Washington State didn’t execute against Oregon State, and it’s up to Oregon to be prepared for the offense to make sure that they put Washington State in tough situations that makes it incredibly hard for them to execute.