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Analysis: Third-down shortcomings rank as minor knock against Washington State’s efficient offense

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 7, 2019

Washington State running back Max Borghi  runs the ball against Arizona State linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas  during the first half Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State running back Max Borghi runs the ball against Arizona State linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas during the first half Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

After reviewing film of the Washington State loss to Oregon, Max Borghi lamented the Cougars’ struggles on third down.

“Offensively, I think we could really work on third downs,” the sophomore running back told reporters after a bye-week practice in Pullman, a few days after a 37-35 loss in Eugene in which the Cougars converted on 1 of 9 such situations.

As to why? Borghi couldn’t pinpoint a single reason.

“I dunno, I feel like guys might get a little timid out there because it’s third down, a little antsy out there or something. I really couldn’t tell you what it is,” Borghi said. “We just gotta do our jobs more and execute no matter what down it is.”

Heading into Saturday’s game at Cal (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), the Cougars (4-4, 1-4) are 33 for 85 on third downs this year, a 39% conversion rate that, if it stands, would be the lowest since Mike Leach’s first year coaching at Washington State in 2012. That year, the Cougars converted on 32% of their 186 third downs.

But what’s odd this year is how few third downs Washington State has faced, and it highlights how efficient the Cougars have been on the two preceding downs all season.

The only FBS team to face fewer third downs this year is ninth-ranked Oklahoma (7-1), which is 33 of 72 on third down. Like the Cougars, the Sooners run an Air Raid offense. The Pac-12 team with the next fewest is Cal, with 115.

While the Cougars could certainly improve on third downs – Leach told reporters on Tuesday that “every year, I’ve never had what I’d consider a satisfactory third-down” conversion rate – their offense has been remarkably efficient otherwise.

Washington State’s offense gains 7.56 yards per play. That ranks fourth nationally, behind Oklahoma (9.54), No. 3 Alabama (7.72) and No. 5 Clemson (7.58).

If that rate holds, it would be the best by any of Leach’s teams dating to 2000, when he took over as head coach at Texas Tech (the Red Raiders peaked in 2008 at 7.1).

Borghi’s play is a big part of the offense’s success. The running back has 964 yards from scrimmage on 122 touches, good for 7.9 yards per touch. That’s up from last year, when he had 740 yards on 125 touches.

Senior Anthony Gordon has thrown for 3,387 yards in eight games and is on pace to become the first Pac-12 quarterback to surpass 5,000 yards in a single season.

One cause behind the team’s efficient offense is its experience, senior receiver Easop Winston, Jr. said.

“(We’re) playing with confidence, and being that our whole outside (receivers) group pretty much came back has made our confidence level rise even more,” Winston told reporters Tuesday. “And having Gordo playing with that confidence, everybody’s just of one accord, always talking out there, being that we’re an Air Raid offense.”

A staple of the Air Raid is repetition, which Gordon credited as a major reason for the team’s success in moving the ball this year.

“It goes to show the more we practice, the better we get,” Gordon said. “We’ve got unbelievable positions that don’t get talked about enough: Our offensive line is unbelievable, so they give me all the time in the world to throw the football; and then our receivers, it just goes to show how great they are; and then, Max (Borghi), it goes without words how good he is.”

Washington State averages 25.3 first downs per game, the most in the Pac-12. It also has punted just 22 times, something only Oklahoma (18) and Air Force (22, in one more game) have done less frequently among FBS teams.

The Cougars have played the Pac-12’s top three defenses in yards per play (Utah, Oregon and Arizona State). They have yet to play the defenses of Cal (fourth), Stanford (eighth), Oregon State (seventh) and Washington (fifth).

Washington State’s defense, allowing 6.42 yards per play, ranks 10th in the Pac-12.

Gordon said he hadn’t given thought to his record-setting pace but rather was looking at each week as a chance for the team to improve.

“We’re looking for these last four opportunities to really go out with some momentum,” Gordon said, “and show everyone what the Cougs are really all about.”

The S-R’s Theo Lawson contributed to this story.

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