PULLMAN – There is a funny thing about Washington State’s pass-until-the-quarterback’s-arm-falls-off offense: The running backs do most of the work, or at least they should.
When Mike Leach’s Air Raid is at its best, the backs see as much work as they would in any power-based, 3-yards-and-a-pile-of-bodies scheme. If the WSU offense is to bounce back from last week’s 13-point debacle at Nevada, it needs to get the ball to its rushers, even if it’s through the air.
On Leach’s best team, the 2008 Texas Tech squad that finished 11-2 and ranked No. 12 in the country, he had a pair of running backs earn All-Big 12 honors. Shannon Woods and Baron Batch combined to rush for 1,474 yards and 19 touchdowns while totaling 81 combined receptions for an additional 846 yards and three touchdowns.
Receiver Michael Crabtree may have rightfully demanded the headlines, but it was the Red Raiders’ running backs who made Leach’s Air Raid offense so potent.
“In the end they should have more yards than everybody, you know,” Leach said. “They should have more yards than everybody by position. We’ve had historically have had guys lead conferences in all-purpose yards without even doing a lot of special teams, so we need to get it in their hands a bunch.”
Last season, Marcus Mason led the team in all-purpose yards at running back. This season, he was passed on the depth chart by talented freshmen Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, as well as emerging senior Theron West.
“They’re talented. They’re the most talented kids we’ve had since we’ve been here,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “They’re as good as you want in this league.”
Even better, the three all have similar talents and strengths, and are all at least adequate running, passing and blocking, meaning the coaches don’t tip their hand to the opponent by subbing in one or the other.
“My goal as a coach is to have three of the same,” Mastro said. “Three guys that can all do the same things, so you’re not subbing for personnel stuff. Out there we have three guys who can all do the same thing, so when their number is called they can go make a play.”
But the influx of talent hasn’t led to an increase in production at the position. In fact, the running backs have seen considerably less use this season through the first two games.
The three backs accounted for 62 combined receiving and rushing yards against Rutgers, a small portion of the Cougars’ 538 yards of offense. Against Nevada, they had 77 of WSU’s 427 total yards.
Rutgers appeared to scheme to take away WSU’s ability to run. Against the Wolf Pack, the Cougars had success on the few times they rushed the ball, with Morrow and West breaking free for gains of 17 and 19 yards, respectively.
“That was one of the disappointments last game,” Leach said. “Running backs should have touched the ball a lot more. I mean the running backs should have touched the ball a lot more, no question about it.”
It’s a problem that will ultimately fall to quarterback Connor Halliday to fix. Not only does he target the running backs in the passing game, but he is relied upon to check the Cougars into run plays when the defense provides an opening.
Based on what the coaches have said this week, it would seem that the Nevada game film revealed opportunities to run the ball that went unheeded.
When Oregon State turned the tide against Portland State during the Vikings’ week-one upset bid in Corvallis, it was by turning to the run game with lead running back Storm Woods rushing for 125 yards.
Leach would likely prefer that the Cougars avoid the FCS upset bid altogether by incorporating their running backs from the start.
“Just keep them involved,” he said. “Just make sure they’re more involved than they were last game.”
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