PULLMAN – For three weeks in August, Washington State’s defensive backs spend hours in the sweltering heat watching passes whizz by them, over them and around them. Fall camp is the most laborious time of the year for any college football player, but there isn’t a defensive secondary out there that has it worse than the one in Pullman.
And from a practical standpoint, training against the Air Raid isn’t always so productive for the WSU DBs. The Cougars will face variations of the spread offense throughout the year, but Mike Leach’s system is a breed of its own, with a handful of stylistic twists WSU probably won’t see all season.
Nevada is the closest match.
On Saturday the Cougars (3-0, 1-0) host the Wolf Pack (0-3, 0-0) at 3 p.m. at Martin Stadium and the game’s prevailing storyline, maybe aside from the numerous ties between the two programs – “you can’t throw a dead cat around here without hitting somebody from Nevada,” Leach said earlier this week – is the similarity between the offenses.
It’ll be Air Raid vs. Air Raid, meaning WSU’s cornerbacks and safeties will finally see much of their preseason work pay dividends – at least to an extent.
“Years ago, the term spread offense kind of became famous and what you find out every week is everyone has their version of it,” Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “We talk about, what is Air Raid mean? So, it’s Nevada’s version and it’s something they’ve put in the last calendar year.”
When Jay Norvell was hired to restore the Mountain West program in Reno, he hired Matt Mumme as his offensive coordinator. Mumme is the son of Hal Mumme, who was responsible for creating the Air Raid offense more than three decades ago. Norvell had a decent understanding of the concept thanks to stints at Oklahoma and Arizona State – both programs were influenced by the Air Raid – and gave Matt Mumme the green light to install the offense at Nevada.
But not all Air Raids are created equal. The Wolf Pack have fused Hal Mumme’s offensive theories with Chris Ault’s. If Mumme’s brainchild was the Air Raid, Ault’s was the Pistol. In three stints at Nevada, Ault won 233 games and is perhaps best known for designing an offense that would mesh the shotgun formation with a single-back set – known now as the “Pistol formation.”
Ault still spends time around the facilities at Nevada and offered his wisdom as Norvell and Mumme were initially devising their offense. Similar to the Cougars, the Wolf Pack aim to throw the ball at a mind-numbing rate, but unlike WSU, Nevada utilizes tight ends and has the ability to converge into a Pistol formation and run the ball down a defense’s throat.
“That’s just an added layer and it’s a pain in the tail defensively when an offense has the ability to spread the field,” Grinch said. “… Then you’re also talking about Pistol run game and so it’s a real challenge because you get offensively, the best of both worlds, but defensively, it puts us in a bind.”
Despite all of the intricacies, the Wolf Pack haven’t been able to put many defenses in a bind this season. Kaymen Cureton, a true freshman, is making his second career start at WSU and Nevada’s chances at an upset will go from slim to none if the signal-caller isn’t able to protect the ball better than he has in previous games. Cureton fumbled four times in last week’s loss to FCS Idaho State, though his Nevada teammates were able to recover each time.
“Our offense is built on repetition and communication and the better we can do that and get these guys up to speed in the offense, the more successful they’re going to be,” Matt Mumme said earlier this week. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. I think we’re averaging around 24 points per game and we need to be better than that and we need to throw it better.”
Cureton had 16 rushing attempts against the Bengals and connected on just 19 passes.
As Leach alluded to, there is quite an assortment of ties between the programs. Matt Mumme played under Leach and his father at Valdosta State and Kentucky.
WSU linebackers coach Ken Wilson spent 19 seasons on Chris Ault’s staff in Reno. Cougars running backs coach Jim Mastro helped Ault with the installation of the Pistol during his 11 seasons at Nevada and outside receivers coach Derek Sage spent two years as a graduate assistant for the Wolf Pack. Sage was raised in Sparks, Nevada.
Former Cougars wide receiver/returner Kaleb Fossum transferred to Nevada in the offseason when the Wolf Pack offered up a scholarship, but isn’t expected to play against his old team because of a knee injury. Ex-WSU offensive lineman Sean Krepsz also left Pullman for Reno and now starts on Nevada’s offensive line. Cougars linebacker Isaac Dotson once committed to Nevada, but inked with WSU when Ault resigned from his post.