PULLMAN – For more than 20 years, Washington State University’s offense has been renowned by the ability to do one big thing.
Since Dennis Erickson was head coach in the late 1980s, WSU has made a living with the long pass.
And nothing’s changed.
“It’s not unlike Washington State back over the years,” said Erickson, the guy who started it all, and now, in his latest role as Arizona State’s head coach, must defend against the Cougars this Saturday, “when they threw the ball up there and made a lot of plays on the deep ball.
“(It’s) very, very similar right now.”
The similarities start with the quarterback.
From Timm Rosenbach through Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Jason Gesser and Alex Brink, picture WSU’s offense and you probably envision those guys flinging the ball downfield.
Now you can add Jeff Tuel to your mental illustration.
Tuel, a sophomore who has started just 13 college games, is on pace to break into the WSU passing record book. If he continues to average 254 yards per game this year, he’ll finish with 3,050 yards, putting him sixth on the school’s single-season passing list.
And the deep ball is not a problem. He’s already completed 11 passes of 35 or more yards this season.
“His throwing ability is outrageous,” said freshman wideout Marquess Wilson, who has caught eight of those long tosses. “It’s easy to catch because he knows how much to put on it and how far to throw it. He just puts it in a perfect spot.”
“He gets the (ball) in position for guys to make plays and he’s got some guys who can make plays,” Erickson said, mentioning Wilson and Jared Karstetter.
“Jeff’s really good at throwing the deep ball,” said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, “and we’ve committed to it.”
That commitment includes practicing throwing the ball deep in practice consistently, using receivers at times and a practice aid at others. It’s the latter that seems foremost in Tuel’s mind.
“The basket deal we’ve got going, on the wheels, that’s it,” he said when asked about this year’s improvement, pointing out a netted contraption the Cougars bought this season. “We do it every day.”
The machine helps WSU quarterbacks work on throwing to spots. But it’s up to the receivers to open up those spots by gaining an edge on the defender.
“The receivers do a great job of holding an edge,” Tuel said, before explaining what that is. “It just means giving me room to throw the ball. If the guy is running on the sidelines, it’s tough to get him the ball. There’s no room for him to catch it.”
And, truth be told, that’s the real key to WSU’s success, being able to gain and keep that edge. But it’s a learned behavior.
“The No. 1 reason we can throw the ball deep is the guy coaching our wide receivers,” Sturdy said. “He’s the best there is teaching the deep routes.”
That would be Mike Levenseller, who has coached Cougar receivers since 1992.
“Mike is one of the better receiver coaches and has been for years and years,” Erickson said.
“The trick is to make the job easy for the quarterback,” said Levenseller in explaining WSU success. “The onus is on the receiver.
“It’s the receiver’s job to manipulate the defensive back to a position where the quarterback doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Because it isn’t easy to hit a guy that far down the field.
“You ever try to throw a ball to somebody who sprints like a deer on a dead run 70 yards, 60 yards down the field,” Levenseller asked. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.”
In Levenseller’s tenure, WSU has had six receivers with more than 1,000 yards, with Wilson – 796 yards in eight games – poised to join the group soon.
“I just run the route how Coach Levy tells me to run it, precisely, the steps and everything,” Wilson said of his achievements, which include catches of 83, 74, 68 and twice of 50 yards.
“His numbers speak for themselves,” Tuel said of Wilson. “He just gets behind people, that’s his deal. I just throw it out there and let him run under it.”
But Tuel doesn’t work in a vacuum. The defense wants to knock him down before he can get the ball downfield and has 31 times. That’s where the offensive line comes in. They must keep Tuel upright.
“It’s getting better every day,” Sturdy said of the protection. “Those deep balls to Marquess, especially the post balls, they take a little longer. We have to protect, we have to have a pocket.”
Even when the deep throw doesn’t connect, Sturdy believes something is gained.
“I like to tell the kids when we take shots, something good happened 67 percent of the time,” he said. “Whatever that is, a catch, a (pass interference call), helping another route the next time when the corner gets off. There are a lot of benefits to doing that.
“To the casual observer, it might be an incompletion, but maybe it affects the next completion.”
Just like it has for years.