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Washington State rewind: Cougars efficient, explosive in 58-7 romp of New Mexico State

PULLMAN – It wasn’t a great litmus test for anyone trying to get a gauge on the 2019 Washington State football team, but Saturday’s 58-7 win over New Mexico State was an ideal starting point, if nothing else, and gave the Cougars a chance to look at a few of the young players buried on their depth chart for some extended periods of time late in the game.

In our first WSU rewind, we examine the first career start of WSU redshirt senior quarterback Anthony Gordon, focus on the Cougars’ efforts in the red zone – both on offense and defense – and explain why Mike Leach’s Air Raid could be more explosive than it’s been in years past.

1. Smooth sailing

Mike Leach answered questions about the play of his starting quarterback in a halftime interview with the Pac-12 Networks and again afterward in the postgame press conference.

The eighth-year coach was reluctant to offer Gordon too much praise at the halfway point, telling the networks’ Samantha Peszek his QB was “doing a decent job,” even after the redshirt senior completed 22 of his first 23 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns.

Decent or dynamite?

Leach obviously needed to see Gordon piece together a full game – or in this case, three quarters – before heaping too much praise on his new starter. So, after the redshirt senior finished 29-of-35 with 420 yards and five touchdowns to four receivers, Leach’s tone shifted when he spoke about Gordon afterward.

“I thought Gordon started out really well,” Leach said. “I thought was as precise, as far as a first time starting, I thought he was as precise as anybody I’ve ever had, so I thought that was pretty good.”

“Outside of his accuracy, what else struck you about Gordon’s performance?” the coach was asked.

“Real quick, real precise,” Leach said. “Now he did communicate well. There’s a clarity to how he runs the huddle and he did a really good job putting them in the end zone. There wasn’t that kind of, that first-game stuff where somebody’s afraid to make mistakes. He put them in the end zone right away.”

Gordon never seemed shell-shocked by the stage, throwing short bullets and long rainbows alike to 10 different receiving targets. And right off the bat, he did what he knew would work: throw to Easop Winston Jr. Gordon targeted his former City College of San Francisco teammate on his first two pass attempts, completing to the “Z” receiver for four yards and eight yards.

No, Gordon and the offense didn’t get much resistance from Aggie defensive backs that struggled to keep up with bigger, taller, quicker wide receivers, and we may have to wait a few weeks before getting an accurate beat on the first-year starter. But still, he put the ball where it needed to be nine times out of 10 and his poise never wavered on what had to be a nerve-racking evening for the Bay Area native.

2. Red alert

The Cougars didn’t score six on all 11 offensive possessions, but they produced either a touchdown or a field goal on their first 10 and put points on the board on each of the eight drives Gordon was behind center.

WSU will enter week two with the country’s most efficient offense. The Cougars’ team efficiency rating was just above 99 percent and while it’s important to factor in the quality of opponent, they weren’t the only Power Five team opening the season against a low-level mid-major or FCS school.

Gordon also achieved perfection in the red zone. The Cougars got there three times while he was in and punched in three touchdowns. In total, WSU went 5-of-5 in the red zone, scoring later on Gage Gubrud’s 9-yard pass to Renard Bell in the back of the end zone, and on Blake Mazza’s 34-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.

“For the most part I thought it was good. For the most part I thought it was real good,” Leach said. “I don’t care for field goals, so you might value that production higher than I do. But it was 100 percent, I don’t think you can get better than that.”

Gordon fired a 19-yard touchdown pass to Easop Winston Jr. and a 20-yarder to Travell Harris. Max Borghi also weaved into the end zone from 12 yards out.

“Keeps Leach pretty happy,” Gordon said of WSU’s red-zone efforts. “But those two field goals bother him a little bit, maybe lose a little sleep as well as myself. It was good, always getting points on the board is important. That’s our job as the offense, score as many times as we can. Then it’s the defense’s job to limit those scores, which they did an awesome job of that tonight. It was pretty cool.”

On defense, the Cougars allowed the Aggies just two trips into the end zone and allowed just seven points. WSU didn’t allow NMSU past the 50-yard line on eight separate drives and of the Aggies’ four trips inside the 40-yard line, only one of those netted points.

“We really didn’t want them to score at all, if we’re being honest” defensive tackle Will Rodgers III said. “I wanted to go win this game with a shutout. It’s okay, first game, we’ve got to get some things figured out.”

3. Bag of explosives

Last season, the Cougars were much-improved in their ability to generate chunk plays, or explosive plays. With one game in the books, it seems that could be an area in which Gordon and WSU excel this year, too.

The definition of an “explosive play” varies program to program, but the most common it is a run that goes 12 yards or longer or a pass for 20 yards more. So, if we’re using that interpretation, WSU strung together nine explosive plays in the season opener – six of those via the air and three more on the ground.

I’m not sure there’s an official term for plays that exceed 40 yards, so we’ll call just call them “atomic.” Of the nine explosive plays, four went beyond 40 yards and Travell Harris and Max Borghi both produced plays of 50-plus yards. (Still working on a nickname for the 50-plus yarders and taking any suggestions).

“It’s pretty awesome, you throw a little two-yard pass, or a 10-yard pass and Dez (Patmon) takes it 60 yards,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty awesome. Laying there, sitting there watching it happen is pretty crazy.”

In the final year of the Luke Falk era, the Cougars took a more conservative approach on offense. Falk wasn’t willing to take the same downfield risks his predecessor, Connor Halliday, was and both of his successors, Gardner Minshew and Gordon, inevitably have the gunslinger gene Falk never truly developed.

Consider this: in Falk’s final season, the Cougars ranked No. 89 nationally averaging 5.2 yards per play. That number grew to 6.0 ypp in Minshew’s lone season, vaulting WSU 64 spots to No. 25. The inflation isn’t just influenced by the change in quarterback. The offensive line was much-improved in 2018 and the wide receivers – many of whom were first-year starters in Falk’s final season – were better and deeper than the year prior.

The Cougars averaged 9.0 ypp in Saturday’s season opener. Of course, that number will drop over the next few weeks, and even more once WSU enters Pac-12 play. Granted, it’s not a bad place to start and Gordon’s aggressive attitude toward the vertical passing game is more reminiscent of Halliday and Minshew than it is Falk.