Analysis: Despite secure turnovers, WSU defense still needs work
At this point, it seems to me that pretty much every week is an exercise in learning something new about the seriousness of this season for the Washington State Cougars.
I will readily admit that there is a fair amount of confirmation bias in my conclusions at this point. I started the season thinking the squad was probably not going to be very good – something I had already decided months before Nick Rolovich’s ill-fated vaccination announcement – and now that they Actually are not very good, it is difficult to tell me about anything that portends positive results in the future.
And because I’ve also come to the conclusion that Rolovich is way over his head and unfit to lead the program, it’s also hard to take everything he says seriously.
Take, for example, defense.
After the game Rolovich said: “It was a hell of a defense performance. The ball comes out, they never gave up when (Utah got there) at the goal line, trying to snatch the ball. … They played well, I thought. They played well enough that we won this game.
I can see why someone – especially the coach – might say this; Utah only scored 17 offensive points in the game, and that should definitely be enough to win. And I understand a coach’s desire to find bright spots, especially when a season is already spinning around the drain – players hear those comments, and a word of encouragement can go a long way with them. I understand that, and I don’t want to minimize it.
But since I’m a fan and not a coach and therefore not at all concerned with how my thoughts will play out in a locker room, here’s what I seen from the defense on Saturday: 254 yards granted in the second half at 6.9 yards per game. It is definitely not great, and if you’re not sure how awesome that is, consider this: last weekend USC gained 259 yards, 6.3 yards per game in the second half.
Let’s be completely honest about why Utah didn’t score 38 in the second half like they did last year, or like USC did last week: The Utes continued to do royally nonsense before you can put the ball in the end zone.
It wasn’t because WSU offered a lot of resistance – it was because the Utes ended their workouts with lost fumbles. thrice and torpedoed another practice with a fumble which they recovered, but which left them a third and long (and caused them to miss a field goal):
Of course, that will be the main point of contention when it comes to divergent views on defensive performance. And I understand that there are those who would say the results are all that matters, which is technically true – if we had won the game we would be happy. We didn’t, so we’re sad. (Or indifferent, or whatever.) Results matter.
Where I have a problem is when what happened on Saturday is described as something to build on. Many people believe in the concept of “forced” turnovers, but there is a mountain of data suggesting that turnovers – especially fumbles – aren’t really “forced”. Yes, the defense must do Something to ensure revenue, but ultimately control really rests in the hands of the offense.
For example: Armani Marsh gets a lot of credit for the shot over the goal line that dislodged the ball and resulted in a flip. And he should! It was an awesome kick – right shoulder on the ball, like you’re trying to do. But … how many running backs are hit like this and not To grope? Especially on the goal line, where the ball is usually quite tight?
Escapes like this are rare, which means they’re not really a repeatable skill, which means interpreting that particular sequence of events as something to lean on isn’t a good idea. . More important to me is that Utah gained 82 yards over the previous 5 plays to get to this point, including a 59-yard rush. (It’s probably also worth noting that the running back ended up in the end zone after the hit, just minus the ball.)
Much the same could be said for the other escapees from Utah. Again, kudos to Travion Brown for knocking the ball out of Ja’Quindon Jackson’s hands in the red zone, but let’s be realistic about Jackson’s (lack of) ball safety on the game and also remember that, (A) the fumble came after he had already gained six yards, (B) he was ready for some more, and (C) the ball could have easily gone out of bounds to allow Utah to retain possession.
In their three games before Saturday, Utah had dropped the ball four times and WSU’s opponents had dropped five times. And then the two teams combined to have Seven on the ground in a single match? Heck, two of Utah’s fumbles were just them dropping the ball. There is no suggestion that WSU has discovered a magical skill that they can use in the future.
Listen: I’m not trying to do defense bullshit here, although it probably sounds like it. I’m really happy that they were able to get good results for their efforts – these positive games are something they can hang their hat on. I hope this will inspire them to keep working to improve.
But as a fan? I can’t hold my breath that anything has changed – and the way the game went on Saturday only reinforced my belief in the program’s downward trajectory under Rolovich, and my complete lack of confidence in its ability to lead a turnaround. The offense continues to be daunting after another anemic second-half performance, and the QB at the helm was the man Rolovich named as a starter to start the season.
At this point we have to ask ourselves what exactly it will take for this team to win another game. When a team makes as many mistakes as Utah and you always lose in double digits?
Just add it to the stack.
What we liked: Production of outdoor receivers
It has been a long time since we could view outside receivers as a potential force for a WSU offense. And while it’s far too early to make any proclamations about a change in philosophy – it’s possible that Saturday’s production was a combination of the game plan, the opponent and the quarterback – it’s still great. to see this position come to life.
De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie combined 11 catches on 17 targets for 138 yards, or more than half the team’s passing yards. It is a potentially exciting development.
I have hoped for great things from Ollie since she arrived; large-frame receivers can do a lot of damage if they learn to use their bodies properly. He’s more than doubled his season total in receptions and yards in this one, so hopefully that’s just the start.
Stribling was a bit of a revelation. His signing last year came as a surprise; he was a 2020 rookie in Hawaii who never landed anywhere and then showed up to sign with the Cougs on day one of signing. He was a weak 3-star rookie from Hawaii whose only other Power 5 offering – again, in 2020 – was Wake Forest.
He’s now second on the team in yards, but more than that, it’s just how he looks on the court. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you would never know he was a freshman just by looking at him. He seems like a few real freshmen belong to, and it looks like Rolovich and his team have found a gem.
Who impressed: Ron Stone Jr.
We waited (semi) patiently for Ron Stone Jr. to deliver the goods we were promised before the season. He finally delivered a jackpot on Saturday.
Stone had 6 tackles, including 3 for a loss, against the Utes. He got his first full sack of the season and also forced a fumble – and, yes, this time I used “forced” – with a vicious hit in the backfield. Since WSU lost I’m going to assume he won’t be Conference Defensive Player of the Week, but he’s got one hell of a deal.
“RJ is an important part of not only our defense, but our team, who he is as a person,” Rolovich said after the game. “It’s no surprise he’s successful, the way he works day in and day out. Just a wonderful member of this team, and a wonderful person too.
If you think Rolovich might be full of bullshit on that last part, here’s a video I took of Stone dancing with Craig’s niece Iris at the Coug the day Craig got engaged.
What needs to be improved: the pocket presence of Jarrett Guarantano
When the pocket was extraordinarily clean – like in the photo above – Jarrett Guarantano looked like a polished passer, making big throws. When it wasn’t extraordinarily clean … he didn’t look like a polite smuggler.
In all, Guarantano suffered seven sacks. Typically, sacks are considered an offensive line stat, but just like conventional fumble wisdom, I think that’s wrong: the quarterback has a lot of control over when the ball comes out, and if you watched the game on saturday, there might have only been one or two of those sacks that we would consider “bad luck.” The others came about because Guarantano both holds the ball too long and also doesn’t have Jayden’s escape from Laura.
He also had these three interceptions. He absolutely gets a pass on the intercepted screen – it was absurd play from the defender – but the other two are almost certainly on him. And both were killers.
It’s quite remarkable to see someone with so many starts under their belt that Guarantano struggles so badly to diagnose a defense and get rid of the ball. I know he worked hard in the offseason to prepare for that last shot of his career, but maybe it’s just a skill a QB has… or not.
Either way, Laura can’t come back fast enough.
Oh. Maybe we’ll get some sort of cosmic ROI for the mountains of Cal Bullshit accumulated over the past few years? It would be rich.