Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Inside Washington State’s decision making — how Cougars’ coaches balance analytics versus feel

Cougars head coach Jake Dickert watches his team during a game Sept. 2 at Canvas Stadium in Fort Collins, Colo.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Justin Kramer consulted the sheet, relayed the information to Ben Arbuckle, and with the green light from head coach Jake Dickert, Washington State had made a decision on how to approach this third-and-long, the first play of the second quarter against Oregon State on Sept. 23.

Up seven points, the Cougars faced third-and-10 from the Beavers’ 45-yard line. WSU aimed to gain 5 or 6 yards on third down, then move to the 40 for a fourth-and-medium – a situation in which analytics, or “the book,” would recommend the Cougars go for it. On third down, they broke the huddle planning to do just that.

“And Josh (Kelly) ends up making a play and scoring a touchdown,” Kramer said.

WSU quarterback Cam Ward completed an out route to receiver Kelly, who spun off one tackle, bolted upfield, shook off another tackle, then sprinted the rest of the way for a touchdown, pushing the Cougars’ lead to 21-7.

Three coaches had been involved in the decision : Kramer, special assistant to the head coach; Arbuckle, offensive coordinator; and Dickert, head coach. Together, they had decided to trust the fourth-down decision book from Championship Analytics, a service that 84 FBS programs use to help them make smarter in-game decisions in critical situations.

Except this time, the players had taken matters into their own hands, illustrating the balance that WSU coaches like to strike: Act according to the book, which provides color-coded fourth-down recommendations for every yardage, time and lead scenario the Cougars could encounter, while also using their intuition to make decisions.

“I think there’s a feel to it,” Kramer said. “We have a good blend. We’re not strictly 100% by the book – what the book says, that’s what we’re gonna do. I think Coach Dickert has done a really good job of finding his niche. And more importantly, I think he looks at the team, and he sees in the moment where our team’s at.”

Kramer is the point man at WSU on the book, which CAI tailors to each individual team. Every week, the company sends its clients a new copy that takes into account details on their next opponent – coaches, personnel, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, even game location and playing surface.

On Saturday, No. 13 Washington State will put its 4-0 record on the line against UCLA, which means Cougars coaches have a copy that’s all about the Bruins – their defense, one of the best in the country; their pass rush, which features star Laiatu Latu; and everything in between.

More important, the CAI book draws a blueprint of each game, which can fit a few descriptions: high-possession and high-scoring; low-possession and low-scoring; or maybe somewhere in between.

Based on the number of possessions the book projects, coaches know how much they should value drives, which they use to inform their decisions on third and fourth down.

For example, the book predicted WSU’s 38-35 win over Oregon State to be low-possession and low-scoring — so much for that. So, midway through the third quarter when the Cougars faced fourth-and-10 from around their 30, Kramer consulted his sheet, a condensed version of the book. Possessions were projected to be limited, but they were skyrocketing. How could WSU steal one from OSU?

The answer came when punter Nick Haberer took the long snap and tossed a pass to tight end Billy Riviere III, a perfectly executed fake punt that prolonged the drive for the Cougars, who parlayed that into a touchdown, and robbed the Beavers of a possession.

“Which is really huge from an analytic standpoint,” Kramer said.

WSU coaches only knew what to do in that situation because they were prepared for it. Kramer is the “book guy,” which means during games, he stays close to Dickert so he can relay the book’s recommendations as they become pertinent. On Thursdays of game weeks, CAI sends out a list of possible scenarios the team could encounter, which is when Dickert, Kramer, Arbuckle, Ward and others meet to make sure they’re on the same page.

The Cougars try to stay ready for anything they face. When games get tight in crunch time, Kramer will eschew the condensed sheet for the full book – 65 pages, he estimated – and locate recommendations for situations. If the situation is colored green, it means go for it. If it’s yellow, it means field goal. Red is punt.

Then there are boxes colored orange and purple – “that are kind of saying, ‘Hey, they could support it either way,’ ” Kramer said.

That’s when the coaches have to trust their players as much as the book. Does Ward have a hot hand? Is Kelly having a strong game? Maybe Ward has been off recently, or perhaps the Cougars are struggling to convert in short-yardage situations.

That’s the kind of personal touch absent from the book. If coaches went by the book on every fourth down, they would end up going for it almost every time.

In WSU’s 2022 season opener against Idaho, the Cougars held a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter when they faced fourth-and-goal from the 6. The book recommended WSU kick a field goal to ice the game, so Dickert sent kicker Dean Janikowski out for a 23-yard field goal.

Janikowski misfired and the Vandals got a chance to tie the game. The Cougars hung on for the win, but that situation underscored one truism about the book: When its recommendations backfire, coaches bear the brunt – even when the decision itself may have been the right one.

“So it looks like, “Whoa, what are you doing?’ ” Kramer said. “But we used it in that moment, in that situation there.”

Relative to other Power Five teams that take a particularly aggressive approach on fourth down – West Virginia, Arizona State, Baylor and TCU have all gone for it upward of 16 times this season – WSU has played things safer. The Cougars have gone for it seven times this season and converted four .

Most recently, in the fourth quarter of the win over Oregon State, WSU held a 38-28 lead and went for it on fourth-and-goal from the OSU 2. Ward’s pass to Kelly fell incomplete. The Cougars couldn’t capitalize on the book’s recommendation, but Kramer felt like it was the right decision.

“If you score in that moment, right there, based on the time left in the game, there was no way Oregon State could have three possessions to even tie you,” Kramer said.

Other WSU fourth-down calls have gone awry. In WSU’s season-opening win over Colorado State, the Cougars had fourth-and-goal from the Rams’ 1, where Nakia Watson was stuffed. Later, on fourth-and-3 from the CSU 17, Ward lost a fumble. Up 29-3 at the time, maybe WSU could have taken the points.

Other WSU gambles have paid off. On Sept. 9, when WSU knocked off Wisconsin, the Cougars faced an early fourth-and-1 on their 34. Running back Watson got 3 yards. “We’ll go fourth-and-1 all over the field,” Dickert said. “That’s very documented.”

Some of their decisions to take three points have paid off. In their season-opening rout over Colorado State, the Cougars had fourth-and-3 from the Rams’ 38, which would have forced Janikowski to hit a 55-yard field goal – a career long for him. Would WSU be better off trusting Ward’s arm or Janikowski’s leg?

Dickert went with Janikowski, who made his coach look like a genius by connecting on the field goal, handing the Cougars a 17-3 lead as the first-half clock expired.

In that way, when fourth down comes up, WSU can consult factors other than the book. The Cougars have options like punter Nick Haberer, Janikowksi and Ward. The book might recommend one or the other, and considering the way CAI personalizes each copy, it’s likely onto something. But what about when Ward is hot?

“If I was the decision-maker, we’re going for it every third down, fourth down, backed up – I really don’t care,” Ward said. “That’s just the type of player I am. I like to go for it.”

Ward has been so good this fall that WSU hasn’t needed to make the decision. In the Oregon State game, Ward completed 19 of 20 passes in the first half, a big reason why the Cougars didn’t face a fourth down in the half. They didn’t face their first one until the third quarter, when Janikowski couldn’t hit from 51 yards out. On their next opportunity, Haberer faked the punt and found Riviere for a first down.

For that, WSU coaches and players can thank the book. The players, though, were the ones who executed it. The Cougars are learning to adjust that balance.