PULLMAN – The deep bomb is no longer a part of Washington State’s aerial armory, but that hasn’t hurt the Cougars passing game as much as one might think.
Halfway through the regular season, the Cougars have yet to complete a pass of 40 yards or more. Last year they were among the country’s leaders in the category with 16 such passes taking them nearly half the field or more.
Yet starting quarterback Luke Falk’s average of 7.30 yards per attempt is near indistinguishable from last year’s starter, Connor Halliday, who averaged 7.36. The similarity can be largely attributed to Falk’s superior completion percentage.
Falk is hitting his passes at a 72.3 percent clip, about five points higher than Halliday’s average, which was still very high. Incomplete passes weigh down a quarterback’s efficiently significantly, and Falk’s dearth of footballs thrown to the ground has made up the scarcity of field-flipping passes.
And the WSU (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) quarterback has been especially good in conference play, averaging 434 yards passing per game while maintaining his superlative completion percentage. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns against three interceptions, two of which inconsequentially came as the Cougars waited out the clock in their blowout of Oregon State.
“I think he’s just sorting it out quicker,” Mike Leach said. “I think he sorts it out quicker. He’s not pondering the mysteries of life, I think he’s going out there and reacting quicker and it’s helped him quite a bit.”
That second half against OSU is troubling, though, and not just for the interceptions. The Cougars failed to score offensively after scoring on every single possession of the first half, scoring a touchdown on all but one of their seven drives.
The WSU tempo slowed down, giving the Beavers more time to set up their defense, get substitutions on the field and examine the Cougars offense to look for clues about what was coming next. When the offense decelerates, it’s not always so easy to speed back up.
“Everything you do in football, first of all, has to be synchronized with 11 people,” Leach said. “I think it requires, not only that, but a high level of effort.”
The WSU passing offense has an opportunity to get more explosive on Saturday against Arizona. The Wildcats give up 7.4 yards per pass, the second-worst figure among Pac-12 teams. They have given up 13 passing plays of 30 or more yards, good enough for No. 110 nationally. And the Wildcats aren’t particularly adept at pressuring the quarterback, sacking would-be passers just 13 times in seven games.
UA’s secondary personnel isn’t scary. While WSU fans will remember starting cornerback Da’Vonte Neal for returning a punt for a touchdown in Pullman last year, they should also remember that back then he was a wide receiver. And he’s the only cornerback likely to play who isn’t a sophomore or younger.
And the Wildcats defense is without its claws, linebacker Scooby Wright III, who forced three fumbles against the Cougars last year but is out with an injury.
The Arizona running game is among the country’s best and the WSU defense appears ill-equipped to defend out. But if there’s going to be a shootout in Tucson on Saturday, the WSU will arrive with plenty of firepower.
Even if the Cougars left the bombs in 2014.
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