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Utah Opponent Preview: WSU Offense

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We examine the Air Raid offense run by the Washington State Cougars, Utah's opponent at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 27th at 6 PM MT.

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday leads the nation with 1,901 yards passing on the season and will present a formidable challenge for Utah's defensive secondary.
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday leads the nation with 1,901 yards passing on the season and will present a formidable challenge for Utah's defensive secondary.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Utah opens their Pac-12 season when the Washington State Cougars come to Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday Sept. 27th at 6 PM MT. WSU has the top passing offense in the country (496.8 yards passing per game), but they are almost dead last in rushing (45.8 yards rushing per game) for a total offense of 542.5 (12th). WSU is averaging 35.3 points per game (51st), so they are having some trouble converting all those yards into points.

The offense is led by senior quarterback Connor Halliday, who has 1,901 yards from 162 completions (68.1% completion) with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. Halliday has made marked improvement since last season with a better completion percentage, more yards per attempt, and fewer interceptions. When he has time to throw, he is an accurate quarterback with a quick release. There are many weapons for him to throw to in head coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. The base formation for the Air Raid is four wide receivers and one running back with the quarterback in the shotgun. Running four wide sets means the team has to have talent and depth at wide receiver to be effective. The receiving corps is deep and diverse with big, possession receivers and smaller, fast receivers. Nine players for WSU have caught at least five passes so far this season, including two running backs. Four receivers from the Cougars rank in the top seven for receiving yards per game (Isiah Myers, Vince Mayle, Dom Williams, and River Cracraft).

One of the keys to running an effective Air Raid offense is running after the catch, so Washington State runs a lot of short, quick routes to facilitate this. To get around the lack of a rushing attack, the Cougars use swing/screen passes to the running backs and wide receivers as pseudo running plays, which again rely on yards after the catch. When WSU does run, they tend to either get no yards or 10+ yards because a team is not expecting them to run. (WSU gashed Utah for a 50-yard run last season, their longest of the season, something Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham noted in his press conference that his defense has to be wary of.)

Because of the nature of Washington State's passing game (many short, quick throws), it can be difficult to generate much of a pass rush, so you will see teams rush only three or four players (Oregon did this for much of their game against WSU this year, as did Utah last year) to have the maximum amount of pass defenders. However, when Halliday has time to throw, he can pick defenses apart (see the Oregon game this year and Utah last year, which are the only two games he has not thrown an interception in since the start of the 2013 season). When Halliday is pressured, he struggles. He does not move well in the pocket and forces throws, which leads to turnovers.

In the losses to Rutgers and Nevada (both of which were away from Pullman, Wash.), Halliday was sacked on average 3.5 times per game. He averaged 1.5 interceptions per game in those two games. In the win over FCS Portland State and the close loss to the Oregon Ducks, Halliday was only sacked 1.0 times per game (both games were at home). He threw 1.0 interceptions per game in those two contests. To me, this shows that when Halliday is not facing pressure, he is less likely to turn the football over.

In the red zone, Washington State has scored touchdowns on 15 of 25 trips. Fourteen of their touchdowns were through the air. With receivers like Mayle (6-3, 219) and Williams (6-2, 190), Washington State will often throw fades to their tall receivers who can get it over shorter defensive backs (like Utah will do with Kenneth Scott). With Utah's tallest cornerback being Eric Rowe at 6-1, this could be something to watch out for when WSU is in the red zone.

Washington State so far through this season has made a marked improvement in not throwing interceptions. Last season, WSU was the second worst in the nation in interceptions per game with 1.85. They have almost cut that number in half with only 1.25 per game this season. Halliday had one poor interception against Rutgers to start the game but played very well the rest of the way. One of his interceptions against Nevada was on a pass tipped up by a WSU receiver who failed to make the catch (sound familiar Utes fans?). Against an Oregon secondary that had four interceptions in three games, Halliday did not throw a single interception (for only the second time since the start of the 2013 season).

The problem I have with the Cougar's offense is that Leach has never incorporated rushing into the offense. His disciples that run effective Air Raid offenses like Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, Art Briles at Baylor, and Dana Holgorson at West Virginia all have a bigger rushing component in the offense, making their versions of the offense much more balanced. The inability (or unwillingness) to run the ball has cost WSU wins because they do not eat up clock rushing the ball (see the 2013 New Mexico Bowl for the perfect example). Will the lack of a consistent rushing attack hurt the Cougars against Utah? We will find out Saturday.

Bottom Line:

I do think Utah is a team that WSU can be successful against without a rushing threat, since the Utah defense is always stout against the run but has struggled against the pass the last few seasons. The key for stopping WSU is rattling Halliday with pressure to force him into mistakes.