One of the guiding principles of the Air Raid offense is balance, specifically a balance of where a quarterback throws the ball.
The idea is that if a quarterback’s targets are evenly distributed across the field, a defense has a harder time predicting where the ball is going to go, so advantage, offense.
Yet heading into Saturday’s home game against Colorado, the Washington State passing offense hasn’t had the balance through six games this year that it had last season. Rather, that balance has shifted. Quarterback Anthony Gordon is throwing to his running backs less, hasn’t found “X” receivers as often and is looking to his right side quite a bit more than Gardner Minshew did last year.
Seniors Dezmon Patmon and Easop Winston Jr., alternating at the “Z” receiver position to Gordon’s far right, are carrying much more of the yardage and receptions load than the “X”, “Y” and “H” receivers for the Cougars, with 32% of the team’s receptions through six games.
“Some of it can be how the defense plays or something like that,” head coach Mike Leach told reporters Tuesday. “Also, I think the lineup’s been a little more stable at ‘Z’, so they get conditioned around things.”
The “X” and “H” receivers line up to Gordon’s left side in most formations, whereas the “Y” and “Z” are to his right. The “X” and “Z” positions are closest to either sideline. Targets are not officially recorded by Washington State, but receptions are.
So far this year, Patmon and Winston have combined for 70 receptions, 945 yards and 13 touchdowns out of the “Z” position. Neither has missed a game.
The team’s trio of “X” receivers – junior Tay Martin, redshirt freshman Rodrick Fisher and senior Calvin Jackson Jr. – has 43 receptions, 534 yards and three touchdowns among them. But Jackson has only played two games, and Martin played solely on special teams in the Cougars’ 38-34 loss at Arizona State last weekend.
Over the entire 2018 season, the Cougars’ “X” receivers had 96 catches for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns, while the “Z” receivers had 113 grabs for 1,470 and 13 scores. It is not an even balance, but it’s closer, despite the personnel being mostly the same.
Leach mentioned specifically the desire to get more out of the “X” receivers, who, he said, “tend to go a ways when they catch it.”
“We want to make sure that we’re getting production out of all five positions, and I think we are,” Leach said. “We could elevate ‘X’, though. I think if we could refine what ‘X’ does on fade routes, and things like that, we’d be headed right where we wanna be.”
Yet it’s the production from the fifth position Leach mentioned – the running backs – that differs most from last season.
Through six games, sophomore Max Borghi and junior Deon McIntosh have 33 catches, on pace for 66 in a 12-game season. A year ago, in a 13-game campaign, James Williams, Borghi and Keith Harrington combined for 145 receptions.
That drop in receptions corresponds with almost no change in handoffs per game. Last year, the Cougars ran the ball 17 times per game, this year 16.5.
Gordon downplayed any perceived preference for any specific player.
“We’re just going through the reads, throwing to the open guy, as simple as that sounds,” Gordon said.
For the first four games, that open guy was most often senior Brandon Arconado, the team’s starting Y receiver in the slot. He has 25 receptions - through four weeks a team-high - for 352 yards and a touchdown. But without him the last two games, H receiver Renard Bell has primarily filled at Y, with Harris taking the occasional reps.
That skews the inside receivers’ statistics a bit. Arconado and redshirt freshman Kassidy Woods have 31 catches for 410 yards and a touchdown, while Harris and Bell have 44 catches for 537 yards and seven touchdowns, collecting some of those catches from the “Y” position.
Leach said Gordon might be favoring his right-side receivers more, but cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about favoritism in an offense predicated on avoiding that.
“I’d have to look at Gordon closer. (Quarterbacks) tend to favor throwing across their body, and you try not to have them favor anything, because their read should guide them to where they’re supposed to be,” Leach said. “And it can be play selection, too, you know.”
Ultimately, the Air Raid comes down to exploiting a defense’s weaknesses, Winston said, and the receivers are “an unselfish group.” He said it doesn’t really matter who makes the catches as long as the team wins.
“Gordo’s a good quarterback,” Winston said. “Just dependent on what he sees and how we attack each team, that’s what he’s gonna play. He’s just gonna play to his strengths and whatever he’s most comfortable with. That’s what he’s gonna do.”
S-R reporter Theo Lawson contributed to this story.
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