WHAT IS COUGAR SPORTS WEEKLY?
Cougar Sports Weekly was a subscription email newsletter written by author Jeff Nusser that ceased publishing in October 2012. You can continue to find his work at CougCenter.com and in College Basketball Prospectus 2012-2013.
Here’s an excerpt from Thursday’s newsletter, in which I identify five guys from this class whose names you’ll want to remember both this fall and down the line. This is the first guy, who is somewhat obvious, but the quintet also includes a dark horse guy who might surprise you:
Gabe Marks, WR (5-foot-11, 175 pounds)
Cougar fans like to think WSU is already pretty deep and talented at receiver, but they’re just not as deep and talented as most people think, never mind the fact that Leach will play a ton of receivers and there aren’t enough currently on the roster. Beyond that, he is looking for guys with very specific abilities to play in his offense, and the fact that he signed four guys who profile as inside receivers in his system speaks volumes about whether he thinks there already are guys on the roster who can do what he wants in there.
Marks is the most heralded of the four wide receiver recruits Mike Leach brought in, rated four stars by both Scout and Rivals. He was WSU’s only recruit in the Rivals 100, rated No. 87 overall by the service, and decommitted from SMU to join WSU. Marks has speed to burn, as evidenced from the way he runs away from defenders in a Southern California league that’s got plenty of speedy defenders. He moves in and out of cuts without losing any speed, an essential skill for any Leach inside receiver, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Marks is earning snaps from day one. If not — after all, Leach demands a high level of execution on offense, and it will be tough to develop that in fall camp — he still projects as a guy who will eventually excel in this Air Raid offense.
At the halfway point of the basketball season, the standings suggest the Cougs are just a game or two away from being in the upper half of the conference — sitting at 3-6, they’re just two behind fifth place Arizona, UCLA and Stanford. Darn you, losses to Utah and Arizona State!
However, there’s a growing pile of evidence to suggest that those two losses actually were an accurate reflection of this team’s level of play and not some kind of fluke occurrence. Are ASU and Utah better than WSU on a neutral floor? Probably not. But on the road … yeah, WSU isn’t enough better to overcome that against even the worst teams in the conference.
To what do I owe this conclusion? An analysis of the efficiency margin of each team in the conference in today’s Cougar Sports Weekly, something that does not flatter WSU. After some analysis of why the defense is so bad, it led me to an outside-the-box conclusion:
The question then becomes whether it’s reasonable to expect the defense to improve much over the rest of the season. Honestly, I’m not sure. If coaching really is part of this, then Bone could just decide to go crazy emphasizing defense. He also could make some personnel tweaks, giving more minutes to guys such as DJ Shelton and Dexter Kernich-Drew. Shelton screws up — a lot — in terms of being where he’s supposed to be, but he’s tall and athletic and does alter shots. And Kernich-Drew is long and active.
However, instead of focusing on the defense — really, how much defense can you teach in a short amount of time? — I wonder if the best solution might not just be to go with extra offense. I’m thinking, in particular, of drastically reducing the role of Marcus Capers, whose value as a defender is probably overstated by most fans anyway.
If the defense is horrible with him in there for 30 minutes a night, and he’s not giving you anything offensively, why not replace him with someone who could potentially at least score? How much worse can the defense get, really?
Here’s a short excerpt from this morning’s Cougar Sports Weekly, in which I spent about 1,200 words examining WSU’s new defensive coordinator Mike Breske. I spent some time talking with the beat reporter who covers Montana football for the Missoulian to get some first-hand knowledge of Breske’s tendencies, as well as dug into some of the advanced statistics from his time as defensive coordinator at Wyoming.
One thing Neighbor said Breske always relished was the opportunity to draw up a blitz the opponent had never seen before, something he tried to do each week. One of his more creative moves this past year was a cornerback blitz. If that doesn’t seem creative, consider this: Montana All-American CB Trumaine Johnson was so good, opponents almost never threw his way. After a month of that, Breske decided to start to use Johnson as a blitzer, figuring teams wouldn’t design plays to that side, anyway. The result was a safety against Montana State and another near safety later on.
When Oregon fans are saying they had no reason to expect what happened last night, you should believe them — this was as out of the blue for them as it was for us. Of course WSU did a lot of things wrong, but Oregon did something to the Cougars that they weren’t able to even come close to doing against the three previous terrible opponents they played. The Ducks, shooting 36 percent from three coming in, hit 9-of-16 out there for nearly 60 percent. A number of teams, including Oregon, probably would have trouble replicating that against air.
The other thing that I think is getting lost is that the offense, while not spectacular, was good enough to produce a victory on most nights. The Cougars scored at a 1.07 points per possession clip, and that’s a rate they maintained pretty much the whole night — it really wasn’t the product of garbage time points. If WSU does that every night (which they won’t, but I’m trying to make a point here that offense was fine last night), they’re going to win more games than they lose the rest of the way.
Now that I’ve hopefully talked you down off the ledge a little bit, here are a few things that I do think you can take away from this game.
Ace Rip 6 Shallow — also known as just the Shallow Cross — is one of the most Airraid of Airraid plays. Its beauty is that virtually any quarterback can complete a pass to a receiver running that route, and if the defense is in man-to-man and the H is being covered by a linebacker, watch out — he can run for days. In essence, it’s a running play with a pass option.
After breaking this play down, one thought keeps crossing my mind: This is a play where Marquess Wilson is really going to thrive. We saw what Wilson could do in space with the ball in his hands this year on the rare occasions the line was able to successfully block the inside screen, and I’m just imagining a corner — who is going to start the play terrified that Wilson is going to beat him over the top — trying to keep up with Wilson running a shallow cross all the way across the field from his Z position.
Broke down another one of Mike Leach’s favorite plays in today’s edition of Cougar Sports Weekly. Here’s a small snippet.
The two basic ways to beat a defense throwing the ball are by stretching it either vertically or horizontally. In this particular play, the name “mesh” comes from the crossing of two receivers, which seeks to stretch the defense horizontally. The play can be run equally well against man-to-man or zone.
The first read for the quarterback is the Z receiver, who runs a corner. Defenses often will recognize mesh, but if they try to jump the short routes, the big play will be available. If it’s not there because they’ve played the deep route honestly, then the mesh comes into play.
The key here is the confusion caused by the X and Y crossing each other. It requires seamless communication from the defense to pass off a receiver from one defender to another, and since it’s usually a pair of linebackers — for whom coverage is not their strength — someone usually ends up free. Against a typical 4-3 defense, the MLB has to pick either the X or Y to cover, as the OLBs are respecting the H and F. There’s almost always a gap in the zone to be exploited by the X or Y — or both, if the MLB can’t make up his mind in a split second.
Big point: This play is a great example of how there’s almost always someone open. That’s magic of Leach.
It seems to me that in addition to the usual skill at identifying talent, developing players and coaching on gameday, for a coach to really be successful at WSU, he needs to have a certain kind of personality — a little audacity about him, a little swagger. I mean, when you think about how crazy it is that little Wazzu — with its miniature athletic budget — stands toe-to-toe week in and week out with the heavyweights of the Pac-12, you’d have to be just a little bit nuts to want that challenge, wouldn’t you?
Remember when Don James called himself a “2,000-word underdog” to Jim Walden? Say what you will about Walden’s loose-cannon nature today — it was unquestionably an asset then. And it wasn’t that long ago that Mike Price brought one of the first spread offenses to the Pac-10, eventually leading WSU to not just one, but a previously unthinkable TWO Rose Bowls!
Unconventional isn’t a sure route to success by any means, and being unconventional for unconventional’s sake is a bad idea. But if you can get someone who is talented and unconventional to come in and fire some shots across the bow of Washington, Oregon and USC, then isn’t that what you want? It’s why I get so excited about the prospect of a guy like Mike Leach. He’s a great fit for WSU for the following reasons