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Staying positive: With heavy emphasis on going forward, Washington State didn’t lose yards often in 2018

PULLMAN – Among every other number of significance a running backs coach has to keep track of, Eric Mele couldn’t remember this one off the top of his head.

No shame there. Mike Leach didn’t pass the quiz, either, but Washington State’s coach was quickly able to identify someone who could.

In 2018, few teams in the country were better at moving downfield than the Cougars. That may seem like a peculiar or blatantly obvious thing to say. Anyone with an elementary understanding of the game could recognize the Cougars were good, and at most times great, on offense. So, it’s important to add context.

In 2018, the Cougars were markedly better than most of their peers in the ratio of times they moved forward instead of backward. “Negative plays” are an essential part of the arithmetic for WSU and last season – one in which the Cougars ranked top 20 nationally in passing offense (first), scoring offense (15th), turnover margin (T-20th) and first downs (20th) – the Cougars made tremendous strides.

Just how many “negatives” were there for WSU in 2018?

“I can’t remember,” Leach said. “We have a number and I could probably get it for you. I think (offensive quality control assistant) Drew (Hollingshead) has got it. But yeah, we do, and I’m sure we still have it.”

Sure enough, the numbers are still plugged into Hollingshead’s database, and the second-year OQC assistant took a plunge into the archives Tuesday to provide the official count to The Spokesman-Review.

WSU recognizes a negative play as any play that results in a negative run, negative catch, sack or fumble.

Last season, the Cougars logged 57 negative plays, or an average of 4.3 per game. Compare that to 2017, when the Cougars were still excellent in most offensive categories, but totaled 87 negative plays and almost 6.7 per game.

“It’s greatly improved from the year before, for sure,” Mele said. “We stayed ahead of the chains all year, tons of first downs. First downs equal touchdowns, so that’s kind of the thought process on that.”

For Mele’s running backs, there’s a great emphasis placed on falling forward rather than being knocked on your heels. Getting back to the line of scrimmage, if that’s the most positive result, is much better than a 1- or 2-yard loss.

“In the running game, specifically, we want to make sure our guys are falling forward on every running play,” Mele said. “So the bad running plays, if we don’t block it up great, we want plus carries, regardless of how well it gets blocked up. Then on the big ones, we want to get all of it. Same thing for the quarterback – don’t take a sack and make sure he’s putting it in play.”

The wide receivers are seldom in position to take a loss of yardage, but they also play a role in reducing negative plays.

“Blitz pickup and running our routes where we’re supposed to be,” inside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “If the quarterback flinches or is not sure what’s going on, then he gets hit in the ear. We talk about that – you’ve got to be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there and that applies for everybody. But sometimes on those kind of things since we’re closest to the quarterback at inside, it’s pretty important.”

Approaching the 2019 season opener against New Mexico State (7 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Networks), the Cougars face the challenge of how to make a great thing better.

“I’d say zero. I think that’s not a bad goal,” Nichol said. “I think we had, boy, the least amount of sacks coach has ever had last year. So that’s a good start. Then our run game is simple, so I think the goal would be zero just going into the game.”

Eliminating sacks was the biggest factor in reducing the amount of negative plays. Gardner Minshew’s awareness in the pocket, and some drastically improved play on the offensive line, enabled the Cougars to concede only 13 sacks in 2018 – one for every 52 passes thrown.

By comparison, WSU’s quarterbacks were sacked 44 times in 2017. Luke Falk’s many strengths were balanced a few glaring deficiencies, such as immobility in the pocket and what seemed to be an unwillingness to throw the ball away in the face of danger.

Fortunately, the Cougars believe their new starter, Anthony Gordon, and backup Gage Gubrud, are more Minshew than Falk in that realm.

“I thought we got better up front,” Leach said. “I also thought Gardner did a good job avoiding negative plays, then I thought our running game was enhanced with Mele and (offensive line coach) Mason (Miller) and the job they did.”

On a paper note listing the number of negative plays from both seasons, Hollingshead also advised to “look up turnovers from 2017 and 2018.”

The quarterbacks threw 20 interceptions in 2017 but trimmed that number in half last year – nine for Minshew and one for Gordon. WSU players were more determined to hold onto the ball, because after losing 11 fumbles in 2017, the Cougars ceded just five in 2018.

After a reduction in negative plays (21 less), turnovers (16), fumbles lost (six), interceptions (10) and sacks (31), it begs the question: Can the Cougars manage to do it all over in 2019?

“I think it’s all relative,” Miller said, referring to the sack count. “There are things we probably did up front that helped the situation. There’s things the quarterback does by getting rid of it. A receiver may bust a route and the quarterback has to hold onto the ball. We may bust a block and the quarterback gets us out of it. We may take all day and the quarterback may want to bake a cake back there, and that’s our job to block him.

“I think it’s all relative. I don’t want to put expectations on it. I just want to do the best job we can do every single day, and that’s all we’re looking for. Can we be consistently good and not occasionally great?”