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Sports >  WSU football

‘He’s like a formational wizard’: Washington State defense preparing to face offensive innovator in USC coach Lincoln Riley

Oct. 5, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 5, 2022 at 9:46 p.m.

Washington State coach Jake Dickert watches his team during the second half of a Pac-12 game against Cal on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State coach Jake Dickert watches his team during the second half of a Pac-12 game against Cal on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State’s sturdy defense will be up against a potent USC offense, a Trojans attack led by perhaps “the best play designer in the country,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said.

Dickert is referring to Lincoln Riley, the first-year USC coach who is widely recognized as one of college football’s top offensive innovators.

“I think he’s like a formational wizard,” Dickert said Wednesday after practice at Gesa Field. “Each week, he schemes up unique, different things to challenge you. And he does a good job of really checking everything from the sideline, giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.”

The Cougars (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) will meet Riley and his rebuilt Trojans (5-0, 3-0), the sixth-ranked team in the nation, at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

As Oklahoma’s head coach, Riley directed a high-powered offense, which spurred the Sooners to 55 wins and three College Football Playoff appearances over the past five seasons. The Trojans hired Riley and quickly became a premier destination for star skill players.

USC used the transfer portal to improve significantly at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions; the Trojans added proven standouts such as Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams, Oregon RB Travis Dye and Pitt WR Jordan Addison, who won the Fred Biletnikoff Award (best receiver in the nation) last season. Those newcomers are shining in Riley’s versatile system.

“I think coach Riley is the peak offensive mind, probably in the country,” Dickert said Monday. “He’s still calling the plays, still in the grind. … Calling plays, he’s phenomenal. He puts his guys in unique situations and he’s so multiple. I just think the way he sees it and calls it is as good as there is out there. That’s why he has all the accomplishments, why he’s done it that well over time.

“It’s a challenge, but our guys will be ready to go and excited to play.”

USC mixes up its play-calling and operates with a level of balance that makes it unpredictable. The Trojans have attempted 167 passes and 169 rushes this season. Their passing offense (296.6 yards per game) ranks 22nd in the country. Williams has thrown 12 TDs against one interception. Their rushing offense (183.8) ranks 43rd nationally. Dye, Williams and backup RB Austin Jones have combined for 875 yards – excluding yards lost on sacks – and 13 touchdowns, with no fumbles lost.

On Monday, Riley said WSU is “the best football team we’ve played up to this point” during a Trojans Live radio program. The Cougars are paced by their defense, a unit that has performed deftly in four of five games.

The Cougars “do a lot like what our defense does,” Riley told local reporters Tuesday . “They’re aggressive up front. They move enough to cause you problems. … The linebackers are very, very active. The safeties are active. They fly around and cause a lot of havoc and do a really nice job of it. You gotta be on your game, assignment-wise.

“It’s a challenge. Your mistakes are going to be (tackles for loss) against these guys.”

WSU is tied for second nationally in tackles for loss (45) and ranks seventh in sacks (18). The Cougars’ defensive line, arguably the team’s strongest position group, is coming off a disruptive showing against California after its first down day of the season in a loss to Oregon on Sept. 24. WSU makes use of D-line stunts and sends linebackers and defensive backs on creative, disguised blitzes.

“You gotta pick and choose your spots wisely, because all of a sudden they can take the best wide receiver in the country down the field and beat you,” Dickert said.

The Cougars’ defense is allowing 18.2 points per game, good for 25th in the country. USC’s offense is scoring 42.2 points per game, the No. 10 mark in the FBS.

Containing Williams is key

USC’s quarterback does some of his finest work outside the pocket.

“He’s unbelievable off-schedule,” Dickert said of Williams, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore. “It’s weird to say – he’s maybe the first pick in the draft, (but) you want to keep him in the pocket and let him throw, because he’s so dangerous outside of it and untouchable when he runs.”

The Trojans’ offense produced impressive stat totals in all but one game . Oregon State kept Williams bottled up, recording 11 QB pressures and frustrating the USC passing game for all but the final stages of the Beavers’ 17-14 loss on Sept. 24. Williams finished the game 16 of 36 for 180 yards, but he led a go-ahead scoring drive late, tossing a 21-yard touchdown strike to Addison with about a minute remaining.

“The biggest thing is explosive plays. I think (the Beavers) limited the scramble plays,” Dickert said. “Caleb Williams, the more I study him, he might be the best running back in the country. … He runs through so many tackles it’s incredible. His off-script (style) is really good and I think that’s the piece of it you can’t game plan for.

“You can try to contain him in the pocket, but there’s so many things he does off-script that’s just next-level stuff. They did a good job of containing him. Sometimes, you catch people on a little bit of an off night, but that was a credit to what Oregon State did.”

Sealing off the edges is a priority for WSU’s defense, which boasts two of the Pac-12’s best edge rushers in Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. – plus several capable substitutes behind them. Relative to the rest of the team, USC’s offensive line isn’t a strong point. The Trojans have surrendered 10 sacks.

Williams has been one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the nation. He threw his first pick last weekend – USC’s lone turnover this year. WSU failed to record a takeaway against California – the Cougar defense’s first game without a turnover since Oct. 23, versus BYU. WSU, a top-five team nationally in takeaways last season, has logged seven turnovers this year after finishing with 29 in 2021. The Cougars’ offense has committed 12 turnovers.

“Just one turnover all year … shows the type of level (the Trojans) have been operating at offensively,” Dickert said. “That’ll be a big part of this game. We need to be great in the turnover margin.

“We’ve got good players, too. That’s the exciting part. They get to go show that. It isn’t just (USC). I understand the challenge, but I love our guys. We gotta pick and choose our spots where we go and be aggressive and we’re dictating. We’ll do that as coaches. We’ll have our guys amped up and ready to play.”

Riley talks Cougar coaches, former Red Raider associates

A student of the Air Raid offense, Riley played quarterback at Texas Tech in the early 2000s and began his coaching career at his alma mater in 2003. He served on Mike Leach’s Red Raider staff for seven seasons.

Riley worked with Texas Tech’s receivers in 2007-09. For two of those seasons, he coached Eric Morris, who now coordinates the offense at WSU.

An inside receiver, Morris appeared in 48 games for Texas Tech across four years (2005-08) and had 1,965 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns on 184 catches. He coached inside receivers on Leach’s WSU staff in 2012, then spent the next five years coordinating Texas Tech’s offense before landing a head-coaching gig at FCS Incarnate Word in 2018.

“Good player, fun player,” Riley said of Morris. “An underrecruited guy who came in, but was a smart player. It’s no shock to see that he’s coaching. He comes from a coaching family. … Just a very tough, dependable player. We had a great run there (Texas Tech won 37 games in four years) and it’s no surprise to see he’s in coaching and doing it at a high level.”

Riley was asked to assess WSU’s Air Raid offense, installed by Morris this offseason, and sophomore quarterback Cameron Ward – who starred at UIW for two seasons then followed Morris to Pullman. The Cougars’ new offense has experienced mixed results, but it has shown plenty of encouraging flashes.

“I think (Morris) has done a good job of mirroring it to what the quarterback does well,” Riley said. “He’s got a good player there and obviously has been able to have some continuity with (Ward). Eric’s a smart enough coach. He’s got an understanding of what his guy can do well and how he can maximize those strengths.

“It looks like he gives this guy some freedom to use some of his natural-born athleticism and make plays. It’s a good system and a tough system to stop, with the combination of what they run and the quarterback making it go.”

Riley and WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire were Texas Tech teammates and co-workers. McGuire, the Raiders’ primary H-Back in 2000-04, was often put to work as an extra blocker out of the backfield and recorded 320 yards and two TDs on 32 catches. McGuire started his coaching career in 2006 at Texas Tech, where he remained until 2010.

McGuire oversaw running backs and special teams at East Carolina between 2010-11. Riley was ECU’s offensive coordinator from 2010-2014.

He returned to Lubbock in 2018 and coordinated the Red Raiders’ offense after coaching the Cougars’ O-line in 2012-17 under Leach.

McGuire tutored USC’s offensive linemen in 2021. He and Riley reconnected after the Trojans hired their new head coach last November.

“Just being somebody I know and trust, I respect his opinion,” Riley said of McGuire. “I talked to him (about the team) when I first got here. … It was cool to see his assessment of the place.

“When you get in (as a new coach), everybody wants to tell you what’s been good and what’s been bad. The reality is, you appreciate that everybody wants to help, but you don’t trust any of them because you haven’t been in the foxhole with them. I’ve been in the foxhole with Clay. I know what kind of coach he is, what kind of person he is. He gave his assessment of not only the roster, but living here. He was very, very helpful and he’s a great friend.”

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