PULLMAN – Going into last season’s matchup with Southern Methodist University, Washington State’s defensive coaches thought they had a pretty good plan to contain the Mustangs’ run-and-shoot offense.
Keep the receivers in front, make tackles, limit big plays.
Then the Cougars went out and gave up 504 yards of total offense, including a 46-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
But the plan proved to be sound. It just took nearly three quarters for it to work.
The game, which SMU led 17-0 and 24-7, turned on an Alex Hoffman-Ellis interception return for a score with a little more than a minute left in the third quarter.
From there, SMU’s offense was impotent, the Cougars’ Myron Beck took a second pick back for another score and WSU escaped with a 30-27 overtime win in Pullman.
Now comes WSU versus SMU, Part Deux. But Saturday’s sequel in Dallas may have a different plot line.
“Their speed is dramatically improved,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “Their quarterback, Kyle Padron, he’s a real good football player. … They’ve seemed to stabilize the quarterback situation, which, in that offense, is particularly important.”
SMU, under former Hawaii coach June Jones, won eight games last season and defeated Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. But Jones’ run-and-shoot offense didn’t really take off until late in the season when Padron, a freshman, replaced Bo Levi Mitchell, the quarterback WSU victimized with the two picks.
Padron finished the season with a 159.9 passer rating, fifth best in the nation.
This season the Mustangs, 1-1 after losing their opener at Texas Tech and beating UAB at home, feature another threat, the running of 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore Zach Line, who scored on a 4-yard power run against the Cougars last year.
“He’s a big, strong guy who can run low to the ground,” Wulff said. “He’s a heck of a threat.”
So how do you stop a team that averaged almost 400 yards a game in total offense last year and has an added dimension this season?
“You have to be sound in your coverages,” co-defensive coordinator Jody Sears said. “They do so many route combinations and the quarterback knows exactly where he’s going with the football, so you have to be extremely sound on what you do and be disciplined.”
“We have to be disciplined in our jobs and not be chasing routes,” echoed linebacker Hoffman-Ellis when asked what is the hardest thing to execute against the run-and-shoot. “They’ll try to draw the backers up, get them out of their zone and throw behind them.”
Discipline is important, mentally and physically, but the last time WSU played a team that spread them out – Oklahoma State – the Cougars had another problem. They couldn’t get the Cowboys to the ground.
“What we need to do is tackle those guys,” Beck said of the SMU receivers, “because they’re little fast guys who can run. They can turn 3-yard catches into 50-yard touchdowns.”
Since the OSU defeat, the Cougars believe their tackling has improved. And the improvement came from where?
“As funny as it sounds, we did tackling drills,” Hoffman-Ellis said. “At this level you have open-field runners who can juke this way and that. It’s important to always remember the fundamentals of tackling.”
Beck said one of those, and the most important one against a back the size of Line, is getting to the ball.
“We’ve been harping at practice running to the ball,” Beck said. “Mainly getting 11 hats to the ball, getting a little nastier.”
So the bottom line is keep it simple and execute.
“They do so many different things,” Sears said, “you can’t worry about what they’re going to do, you have to take care of what you do, what your fundamentals are, what your assignment is.”