PULLMAN – There is no ideal yardage number in mind, coach Mike Leach says, when it comes to how much he wants Washington State to move the ball on the ground.
He does, however, demand a high yards-per-carry average. So it can likely be assumed that the minus-0.3 yards per carry WSU posted in its season opener at Brigham Young wasn’t quite good enough.
The same inability to run the ball that plagued the Paul Wulff era was again present in WSU’s first outing of the season, as the Cougars carried the ball 16 times – though three were sacks – for a grand total of minus-5 yards (17 if you take out the 22 yards they lost on sacks).
That’s the wrong direction. And though WSU is going to move the ball primarily through the air this season, it needs to be able to mix it up every now and then, too.
“The run is secondary in this offense,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “But when we do run it, we have to be efficient.”
For a reference point, Leach’s top three running backs at Texas Tech in 2009 combined to average 5.4 yards per carry. The year prior, two backs shared the bulk of the carries and averaged 5.8.
WSU is going with a multiple-back approach this season, too, listing Carl Winston, Teondray Caldwell and Leon Brooks together on the depth chart. Against BYU, Winston led WSU in rushing with four carries for 7 yards, including a 5-yard carry that marked the Cougars’ longest rush from scrimmage.
“You want to get good value on the play,” Leach said. “It’s like whether you’re betting horses or what you’re doing, you want good value on the play. I thought we ran at the appropriate time but we weren’t effective.”
That signaled a larger problem against BYU.
“Part of it is, it indicates we’re getting beat up front,” Leach said. “We spent a lot of time playing one guy short and maybe two guys short, and obviously, that’s the strength of (BYU’s) team. They’re a senior-loaded group and they’re good.”
Eastern Washington, WSU’s next opponent, doesn’t lack size up the middle, either – their two tackles, Andru Pulu and Evan Cook, go 290 and 280 pounds, respectively – and the Eagles list just one underclassman among their 11 defensive starters.
There have been apparent changes made along WSU’s offensive line this week, with redshirt senior Wade Jacobson moving from left guard to right tackle, and Dan Spitz moving from that position to right guard.
“We didn’t open up the holes big enough,” offensive line coach Clay McGuire said. “Just because we fit it up sometimes the way it should be doesn’t mean it’s going to work to move them out of the way. We’ve got to do a better job with our pad level and knock some people off the ball.”
But Thursday’s issues weren’t all about blocking.
“It was everything,” Mastro said. “It was a combination of quarterback, running back, O-line. It was everybody. Part of it was just, ‘Do what we coach you to do.’ We got into a game and the lights went on, and they tried to do more than they should have. Just do what you do every day in practice.”
Leach said he’ll use the run more often if teams take defenders out of the box and try to drop several players back into coverage. And that’s what opponents will try if WSU doesn’t get the running game going.
“They can put five guys in the box and double-cover your receivers,” Mastro said. “You have to have the threat of a run. As little as we do it, when you do it, you have to be successful.
“We made some corrections this week in practice that will help. Part of it is game experience. But that group’s got to do everything right all the time and they’ll have some success. If they don’t, we’re not talented enough to overcome that stuff. They’ll get better. They work hard.”