PULLMAN – Nobody runs the ball as little as coach Mike Leach’s Washington State team.
That’s not only a widely held opinion about one of the nation’s most pass-centric coaches. This season, it’s a statistical fact.
The Cougars have logged 142 carries through their first seven games, fewer than any other FBS team, ranking 119th in the nation – next to last – in both rushing yards (284) and yards per carry (2.0).
And yet running backs coach Jim Mastro said Thursday that “we are getting production out of our run game.”
He’s not wrong. For some reason, the NCAA still counts lost sack yardage against a team’s rushing total, and the Cougars have again been one of the worst teams in the country at protecting the quarterback.
Opponents have sacked either Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday 24 times this season – a total that’s tied for 113th in the nation – resulting in a net loss of a whopping 172 yards.
Subtract the sacks and the resulting lost yardage from WSU’s rushing totals – as well as Tuel and Halliday’s overall rushing totals, which include scrambles on designed pass plays – and Cougars running backs are averaging a shade more than 4 yards per carry. Not outstanding, but not nearly as dire as the national rankings suggest.
“We’re getting a little more precise with it,” Leach said. “We’ve cycled through a bunch of people. I think that our biggest thing is being precise and being physical up front.”
They’ll likely continue cycling at Stanford on Saturday.
Remember Marcus Mason? He flashed potential as a freshman last season with 153 yards on 19 carries in four games, bolstered by a 65-yard touchdown run in the season opener against Idaho State.
Mason hasn’t received a single carry this season as a sophomore. But with starter Teondray Caldwell sidelined this week after taking a blow to the head against California, and Leon Brooks not practicing with an apparent injury to his right foot or ankle, Mason looks to be WSU’s No. 2 option behind senior Carl Winston.
“He’ll play a lot this week,” Mastro said. “He’s deserved a chance to play kind of all year. The position has been pretty productive for us so to make changes has been pretty hard, but he deserves a shot and he’s going to get his chance this week, like we talk about, next man up. He’s got to rise up, he’s going to get his chance and his job is to keep the job forever.”
Bennett Bontemps, a junior receiver, has also been practicing at running back this week in case he’s needed.
Mastro said WSU’s main priority continues to be developing its passing game, which ranks ninth nationally in yards per game but just 98th in efficiency.
Against a Cardinal team that has been stout against the run – they’re fourth in yards per carry allowed at 2.48 – establishing a ground game might be tougher than usual for WSU.
“It depends what they do, it depends what they give you,” Leach said.
“It’s important especially if they give you the numbers and stuff like that. You’ve got to be able to do it. We’ve been inconsistent at it, but we’re improving.”
WSU has seen those “numbers” before.
“Something called ‘cover eight,’” Tuel said, “where they only rush three and drop eight.”
That’s happened in “basically every game,” Tuel said. WSU took advantage of it against Eastern Washington, responding to the Eagles’ coverage by rushing the ball a season-high 30 times for 108 yards.
“We’ve got to have a running game,” Tuel said. “In this league it’s tough to throw it every single down and be as successful as you want, because guys will start to figure you out.”