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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Cougars prepare for tempo every week

In past articles and practice recaps, I've referred to the "scout team offense." Maybe that was a mistake, because these days it would be more accurate to call them "offenses." Why plural? Because the Cougars defense spends portions of each practices going against scouts who set up new plays with nearly wholesale substitutions before the previous play is even finished, forcing the defense to set up immediately after every tackle.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would prefer to have two complete scout offenses going side by side so that there was no transition time whatsoever, but WSU's depth isn't ready for that yet.

But the Cougars are still able to manufacture the illusion of an offense moving from snap to snap faster than one ever could in a game, when they have to wait for an official's whistle and for markers to be moved following first downs. That’s important because nowadays practically every team is liable to speed up its pace occasionally.

"Oh jeez, it seems like every week we talk about it quite honestly," Grinch said. "You talk about it more when the team doesn't (run tempo), the script has been flipped. I mean you'll see it on film where … the chains are in full-on sprint mode before the next play. That's reality and we've got to adjust to it."

While lots of teams have a tempo component to their offensive game plan, few teams can match the speed of Arizona, who host the Cougars on Saturday. In fact, only Baylor had less time between snaps than the 18.3 seconds the Wildcats averaged in 2014. This year UA is ranked No. 10 in adjusted pace by Football Outsiders, one spot ahead of No. 11 Oregon, who the Cougars beat earlier this year.

A team has to have good depth to rely so heavily on tempo – the Wildcats have five players with 26 or more rushes this season. But if you've got the personnel, and your offensive line can handle it, the rewards for going tempo are such that it's strange that any teams forego the advantage.

The Cougars keep a quick tempo anyways (they're ranked No. 32 in adjusted pace) and they'll go even faster if they sense that an opponent's defense is tired. The offense is not required to give the defense time to get fresh players on the field if it does not itself substitute, and a series quick snaps can kill a weary defense, which is why some teams with plodding coaching styles tried to change the substitution rules last season.

And that's only one of the ways a quick tempo hurts a defense. Allow Grinch to list some of the headaches:

"To prevent you from subbing, to try to get you into a situation where you're not as disciplined as you otherwise would be. They're trying to prevent, as best they can, eye control, which is so critical. The lack of delay between plays doesn't give you time to process what happened the play before and what the call is on the sideline, what you might say. It limits the amount of tendencies you can talk to your players about because they don't have time to see all those things. And I could probably list 20 more (ways it hurts the defense)."


Teams like Oregon made hay by discovering the benefits of tempo offense before anybody else and recruited fast players to fit their fast-moving offenses, making it even tougher for defensive linemen to run past the line of scrimmage and get into position after a big play before the next snap.

The average number of plays run per minute of possession consistently rose in college football from 2008-12, which Football Study Hall chronicled here. Such tempo, in addition to combatting the fast skill players inherent to spread offenses, is one reason defenses are getting smaller and faster.

Football Study Hall has done a nice job chronicling how nose tackles are getting smaller and inside linebackers are getting more athletic. This year, in games you've seen the Cougars get speedier by moving faster defensive linemen toward closer to the quarterback on the line of scrimmage, as well as employ a nickelback in lieu of a third linebacker.

Barring a bowl game against Bowling Green or Baylor, the Cougars will face the fastest-snapping team they'll play all year on Saturday. How they combat the Wildcats tempo will be fascinating to watch, and will play a key role in determining the game's outcome.

The Cougars held their Thursday Night Football practice today. Here are some notes:

-- The offense did not score a touchdown and did up-downs after the practice. Tyler Hilinksi led what appeared to be a touchdown drive but threw a pass that was intercepted in the end zone by Skyler Cracraft.

-- Nnamdi Oguayo had a good day for the defense, picking up a pair of sacks.

-- Another player who has performed well for a few consecutive TNF sessions is cornerback Deion Singleton. At 6-foot-2, 190-pounds, Singleton has great size for a freshman cornerback and is learning how to use it to knock receivers off their routes. Singleton is ineligible to play this season but Grinch said after practice that he would otherwise be "right in the mix" at corner.

Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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