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Washington State mailbag: Why tight ends aren’t used in the Air Raid, Justin Herbert and Coug-themed Halloween costumes

PULLMAN – Just in time for the Fall Classic, you all have decided to throw me some real curveballs.

From Justin Herbert to Wazzu-themed Halloween costumes, and Dillon Sherman to tight ends in the Air Raid offense, I tackle a variety of questions this week as the Cougars attempt to tackle their biggest test of the 2019 season, facing No. 11 Oregon on Saturday in Eugene.

We’ll see who’s more successful.

Do you think there’s a secret to beating Leach? Not necessarily schemes that work well vs. the Air Raid, but do you think there’s coaches that anticipate his tendencies and plan for them? Chris Petersen certainly seems to have us figured out, but not sure if I’m just overanalyzing anguish from losing too many cups in a row.

– Lucas M.

Yes, there are a few Pac-12 teams that seem to have a better beat on the Air Raid than others. Washington, of course, is the first that comes to mind. The Cougars have never scored more than 20 points against UW under the Petersen/Jimmy Lake tandem and are averaging 13.8 against the Huskies. Cal’s had success limiting Leach’s offense under Justin Wilcox, a Petersen disciple, and held the Cougars to 22 points in the last two meetings. Utah and Kyle Whittingham are starting to figure it out, too.

These, of course, happen to be the Pac-12’s top three defenses over the last three to five years, and they usually bottle up everyone they face, not only the Cougars. But teams that succeed against WSU and the Air Raid are usually ones that apply a level of physical play the rest of their peers don’t. They usually succeed in man coverage against the Cougars’ receivers because they’re quick enough and strong enough to stay on their hip, and disciplined enough not to overpursue.

Washington and Utah, especially, have been elite in their front seven, which often allows them to pressure WSU’s quarterbacks with a three-man pass rush, thus permitting them to drop eight players into coverage and clog up a few more passing lanes. The Huskies aren’t as robust in the front seven this year, so whether they choose to rush three or four players will be something to keep an eye on when WSU and UW meet in November.

The Air Raid isn’t predicated on long passes, per se, so when the Cougars gain more than 15 yards on a throw, it’s often because they’ve made the first defender miss and picked up yards after the catch. Teams such as Washington, Cal and Utah limit those opportunities, and wide receivers tend to get squeamish when they’re taking the physical blows those teams are capable of delivering.

So, yes, scheme matters, but I’d suggest that personnel matters more.

I’m looking for a Coug-related Halloween costume. Any suggestions that aren’t Minshew or Leach?

– Jordan M.

Would you entertain the idea of “Sexy Butch?”

(If you do this, we’ll need photo evidence.)

How’s your facial hair? If you’re trick-or-treating in a Coug-friendly neighborhood, or attending a Halloween party with other WSU fans, I’d throw out Liam Ryan as another option. Toss some shoulder pads on, smear some eye black across your entire face and find your way to a fake mullet. Or, if you wanted to forgo the eye black and go with Ryan’s Pac-12 Media Day look, you could settle for a pair of sunglasses. But the mullet – bleached, preferably – is essential.

What about an homage to Washington State icon “Popcorn Guy?”

Wait, no, I have it. Dress up as Tracy Claeys and leave your Halloween party halfway through.

I’m here all week, folks!

I have an Air Raid question. Why does the Air Raid (specifically Leach) not use tight ends?

– Holli W.

It’s interesting, I’d never heard Leach’s take on this covering the team the past three years. Some of the top tight ends in college football over the past few decades have come from the Pac-12/10 Conference, if you go all the way back to Tony Gonzalez (Cal) and jump forward to Rob Gronkowski (Arizona), Zach Ertz (Stanford), Coby Fleener (Stanford) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington).

Is Leach totally averse to using them? Not necessarily, or so he told us Tuesday, explaining that the best tight ends often make great defensive linemen and there’s usually a greater need for D-linemen than there is for tight ends – especially when you’re running the Air Raid.

“If you can find one, they’re outstanding and it’s a lot of fun, too,” Leach said. “The best tight ends we have are typically playing D-line. The best tight end we’ve had through here I can think of was Logan Tago, but we needed him at D-end, and if we have enough D-linemen, I’d love to have one on offense.”

I then proceeded to ask Leach when the last time was he used a tight end and, well, didn’t actually get an answer but nonetheless got some more background info on his theory when it comes to tight ends. Essentially, if you’re adding a tight end, you’re sacrificing an inside receiver. In an offense that’s designed to attack space, the smaller, quicker, slot receivers are a better fit than big, slow tight ends.

“They’re just so hard to find and then adapting around that, I ended up with these – you can go right down the list, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Travell Harris, Brandon Arconado, Renard Bell,” Leach said. “A guy that can move around and is quick and that you can still get the ball to. But if you have both of those things, if you have a true tight end and you have a guy like that, it’s almost like a fastball/changeup deal, because one guy’s too quick to put a true linebacker on, the other guy’s too big and strong to put a strong safety on. So it creates mismatches and you can do a lot of stuff with it. It’s just hard to find.

“If you go to the mall, there’s only a few defensive ends running around the place and there’s not many in the world to begin with. But if you fill up a D-line, it’d be a lot of fun to do.”

Surely, if Leach were dead set on using a tight end, he’d be able to acquire one. Recruiting pass-catchers of any type to the Air Raid isn’t much of a challenge. But it doesn’t suit an offense that leans so heavily on skill and speed.

Will Justin Herbert’s desire to finally beat the Cougs cause him to overperform, or try too hard?

– Jennifer D.

It’s important to remember Herbert’s only played one full game against WSU. While I’m sure he is tired of hearing about their four-game slump against the Cougars, the QB hasn’t contributed much to that.

The Ducks were still starting Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop behind center when an Oregon team coached by Mark Helfrich came to Pullman and lost to the Cougars 51-33. Herbert got a few snaps in garbage time and played admirably, completing 3 of 5 passes for 70 yards and rushing for a late 4-yard touchdown to make the game look slightly closer than it was.

In 2017, Herbert was one of the more intriguing young quarterbacks in the country and already one of the best in the Pac-12. But he didn’t get to start against the Cougars that year, either. Herbert had thrown for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions before breaking his collarbone in a game against Cal, one week before WSU’s visit to Autzen Stadium. A young QB named Braxton Burmeister (now at Virginia Tech) got the nod for Oregon and WSU scored 26 unanswered points to win 33-10.

Herbert probably does have some less-than-fond memories of his only start against the Cougars, however, and that may be enough for him to want to right the ship. Had Oregon’s offense conjured up something – anything – in the first half of the 2018 game, the Ducks could have avoided an upset in Pullman. Herbert led the Ducks on a 20-0 run that spanned the third quarter and part of the fourth after being shut out the entirety of the first half, but the Gardner Minshew-led Cougs had the last laugh.

I asked Herbert about the losing streak to WSU during Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood this July. The Cougars are the only team in the conference the Ducks haven’t won against since he arrived on campus.

“Yeah, for the past four years they’ve really gotten us, so it’d be great,” Herbert said. “It’s a great opportunity to play against them. They’re a great defense, they’re well-coached and it’s fun to play against them. Pullman’s a special place and it’s a lot of fun every year.”

Back in July, it would’ve been hard to imagine Oregon (unofficially) wrapping up the Pac-12 North so early, and this weekend’s game against the Cougars was more of a means to an end for a Ducks team that was picked to win the division, rather than an opportunity for revenge. Now it’s an opportunity for Oregon to bolster its spot atop the Pac-12 North and keep its chances alive for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

If Herbert happens to be the one to end the skid against WSU, it just adds another feather to the QB’s cap.

Any word on Dillon Sherman? Rogers overran or missed his gap all day Saturday against the run.

– Greg

Far as I can tell, the Cougars aren’t getting Sherman back in the immediate future. Then again, I often don’t know much detail about injuries within this program and I wouldn’t have anticipated that Clay Markoff would return to the field as soon as he did.

I don’t believe he’s practiced with the team lately, but perhaps he’d be ready to go in three weeks by the time WSU visits Cal, coming out of the second bye.

While I never thought of Sherman as an essential member of the defense, this is a unit that would take any and all help it could get, and the redshirt junior has much more experience than the backups the Cougars are relying on at the inside linebacker spots. Travion Brown and Hank Pladson have been serviceable, but Sherman, with 60 career tackles and six tackles for loss, is a much more viable option at both “Mike” and “Will.”

It’s still not clear what’s up with Dominick Silvels, who I also believe could be an impact player at either of the ILB positions with his athleticism and experience.

Jahad Woods has been the best player on defense this season, which isn’t unexpected. But he’s also been the most overworked. In two games, the junior’s come off the field with an apparent injury, and didn’t return in the season opener against New Mexico State. Woods also left a preseason practice dinged up, but he came back the next day.

As you mention, Rogers has struggled in spots. He’s been hit-or-miss in pass coverage and shaky against the run despite being a fourth-year player who was thrown into a starting role during his redshirt freshman season. Rogers is also the player who’s making the calls between plays – the role Peyton Pelluer had last season – and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s become somewhat taxing, or overwhelming, with so many new faces around him.