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The legendary journeys of Hercules (Mata’afa)

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Washington State is playing top 10 defense thanks to undersized but overpowered DL Hercules Mata’afa.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more fascinating subplots to the 2017 season has been the play of the Washington State Cougars. That Leach’s squad could be 9-2 (6-2 in the Pac-12) with a chance to win the North division with a win over Washington in the season finale isn’t totally shocking. After all, QB Luke Falk is a redshirt senior and a 3.5 year starter in Leach’s offense who has some returning starters around him on the offensive line and out wide at receiver.

What is shocking is what dimension of this team has truly driven their success this season. It hasn’t been their veteran Air Raid offense, the Cougars are dominating on defense across a broad range of categories in a fashion you wouldn’t expect.

They’re ranked 17th in defensive S&P+ currently but within the top 10 in getting to the QB and stopping teams on third down while also within the top 10 in preventing big plays. That’s the magical combination that teams strive for, being able to pressure QBs and attack teams in key moments without also giving up big plays.

Some of the teams listed above manage that by having dominant edge-rushers that can be counted on to get to the QB such as Auburn with Jeff Holland or Ohio State with their army of quality defensive ends. Others are really good at the modern art of bringing disguised blitzes while playing conservative coverages behind them such as Wisconsin or Michigan. Then there’s Washington State, who’s main means of generating the kinds of safe pressures that generate sacks without giving up big plays is defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa.

The legend of Hercules

Mata’afa is a 6-2, 252 pound redshirt junior for the Cougars that plays what would be best described as the boundary defensive tackle position inside of the “rush” linebacker position who also aligns to the boundary. You’d expect to find someone with his size and attributes at the rush position rather than playing a role more akin to what Warren Sapp executed back in the day.

The Cougars play mostly Over fronts but they are fairly multiple and they love to disguise what exactly they’re doing until just before the snap...

or just after...

Either way, Mata’afa generally ends up playing as either a 1-technique nose tackle or a 3-technique defensive tackle at a playing size that used to be found at positions like middle linebacker or defensive end.

From that position he’s amassed 41 tackles this year, 21.5 of which came behind the line of scrimmage and 9.5 of which were sacks on the QB. Sometimes they get Mata’afa working on the edge, where he’s pretty devastating. Here he is stunting to the edge from the inside and blowing through a chip block by a Utah RB as though it weren’t happening before finishing the play by stripping the ball and recovering it himself.

But just as often he’s doing all that damage from inside like a traditional tackle. The effects for the Wazzu defense are considerable.

The right combination of speed and power

Much of packaging modern defenses is about getting the right combination of speed and power on the field. Speed is at a premium, particularly in an era of spread offenses that may ask a defense to stop a run and a pass at the same time. Team pursuit and fielding fresh defenders that will run to the ball on every play is worth a great deal and in the Big 12 defenses are even moving away from fielding as many DL or LBs in favor of dime packages.

The right question to ask on defense today is really ‘how small and fast can we get away with playing in this game?” How many DBs and lighter players that can run is too many before you become vulnerable to a team like USC or Stanford just running you over?

Mata’afa manages to bring the perfect blend to the Washington State defense. He causes most of his disruption by virtue of being much faster and more explosive in those inside alignments than anyone that opponents are accustomed to facing. Here’s Stanford’s guard Nate Herbig failing to even make solid contact on him on a split zone play gone awry:

Stanford’s normally potent running game could do next to nothing against Washington State with Bryce Love running the ball 16 times for 69 yards and 52 of those yards coming on a single breakaway run.

USC had a terrible time dealing with him on their base outside zone plays as he would regularly beat OL to their spots and either force the ball inside or knife inside and hit the ballcarrier for a loss.

He’s built much like fellow islander and star defender Manti Te’o except that he’s right up in the thick of the action rather than playing behind tackles at middle linebacker. His explosiveness in his first few steps, combined with his ability to change directions, makes for an impossible situation for many OL trying to get their hands on him. The difference is that while Te’o would rack up tackles and minimize running gains, when Hercules beats a block and makes a tackle nearly half the time it’s behind the line of scrimmage because he’s so close to the ball.

The question with a guy like this becomes “what happens though if OL do get their hands on him?” A double team or a down block presents the risk of washing a smaller guy like this out of the play and creating an even bigger crease than when executed against a less dangerous but stouter, heavier player.

Utah caught him once with a double team when he was aligned as a nose tackle. The Utes ran “split zone” and double teamed him with their left guard and center. As it happened, the Cougars were also keying the TE with their linebackers so the guy playing behind Mata’afa and defending the B-gap was a safety rather than a linebacker:

With a more aggressive linebacker behind him, Mata’afa’s (H here on the diagram) play on that double team probably means a stop for no gain. As it is, once the guard finally gets off Mata’afa our hero beats the center’s block and makes the tackle himself.

That’s about as solid a play on the double here as you’d expect from a typical nose-tackle chosen for his ability to eat double teams and protect the LB. Hercules doesn’t give up a ton of ground and fights off the block once he’s double teamed to make the stop, if he had an aggressive LB playing behind him rather than a hesitant safety the Cougars would have shut this down. As it is, the damage is limited.

So Mata’afa essentially provides the Cougars with good play in the nose when he’s aligned there and then plus play as a disruptor on other snaps. His speed off the ball is such that it’s almost as though the Cougars were blitzing a middle linebacker through an interior gap every snap without the downsides that come when LB blitzes are picked up and the OL drives that LB off the ball.

There is no better way to defend modern offenses than being able to generate quick, inside pressure/penetration without having to commit more than four or maybe five defenders. Hercules Mata’afa is doing that for Washington State and they may achieve a Pac-12 title as a result