It was billed as a matchup of the earliest proponents of the Air Raid offense. Mike Leach, the mentor, versus Dana Holgorsen, his former player and assistant coach.
And yet the game hinged on defense. Houston played it well in the first half, Washington State even better in the second. The result? The 20th-ranked Cougars have played well after halftime this year, and did again Friday night at NRG Stadium, helping lift them to a 31-24 nonconference victory over Houston.
West Coast veteran play-by-play voice Dave Flemming and longtime NFL executive-turned-analyst Louis Riddick had the call on ESPN.
What they saw
• Sideline reporter Paul Carcaterra wasn’t on camera with either coach at halftime, but he did report, as the second half was beginning, that he had talked with Leach. He relayed the information the WSU coach thought tackling was “a major issue.”
You mean like the third-and-4 deep in Houston territory early on its first scoring drive? Explosive quarterback D’Eriq King had dropped to pass, but nothing was open before Jahad Woods hit him – and bounced off. No matter. Willie Taylor III was there. But he whiffed as well, King got the first down and Houston marched down the field.
The Washington State secondary struggled throughout the first half, with Houston’s running backs and receivers picking up chunks of yards after the first hit. On the other side, it was a rare occurrence when a WSU receiver gained a yard after contact.
So instead, WSU went over the top. The first time it was Anthony Gordon to Easop Winston Jr. for a 39-yard touchdown. The second was a floater and Gordon was picked in the end zone late in the first half.
The third was another 39-yard strike, this time to Dezmon Patmon behind the Houston defense right down the middle midway through the third quarter, giving Washington State its first lead.
That came on the heels of another WSU (3-0) touchdown early in the third – a Max Borghi 1-yard run – after WSU had benefited from a Houston fourth-down failure deep in its territory.
Patmon’s touchdown came right on the heels of Riddick saying that Gordon hadn’t been successful over the top in this one.
What we saw
• Carcaterra had the best interview of the night, and the most egocentric.
On the positive side was his first-half conversation with Air Raid creator Hal Mumme, who teamed with Leach some 30 years ago to come up with an offense that revolutionized the game.
Carcaterra talked with Mumme as Houston (1-2) was marching to its first touchdown, using King’s feet as much as his arm. The somewhat unorthodox Air Raid look didn’t come up (though Flemming and Riddick talked about it often), as Mumme spoke about his time with Leach at Iowa Wesleyan, where Holgorsen was a player.
The negative was a short feature about spending time with King earlier in the week, which was lighter on the quarterback’s life than it was on Carcaterra’s thoughts about it. The Houston QB has to have a story with more depth than ESPN showed.
• The Mumme interview was supplemented by Flemming doing a quick – yet complete – summary of the Leach/Mumme coaching tree, of which Holgorsen has as deep roots as anyone.
“When the history books get written about the modern era of football,” Flemming summarized perfectly, “that man, who in some ways has been forgotten, is one of the most important people in the history of modern football.”
Riddick highlighted the differences between the two Cougars’ offenses, focusing on Houston’s running game and WSU’s lack of same. He could have highlighted other differences as well, if he wanted, including Washington State’s offensive line splits, which date back to the Iowa days and are something that Holgorsen has tightened up.
He did mention Houston’s use of a tight end, though it came after the Cougars had completed a pass to a tight end – split out near the left sideline.
• It’s a cliché to criticize Pac-12 officials. But like all clichés, it’s a cliché because it’s true. At least it was much of the night, including the first play of the fourth quarter.
On second-and-4 from the WSU 24, Borghi leaked out the right side of the formation. Brandon Arconado, one of the receivers on that side, crossed through the middle, taking care to avoid Houston’s Grant Stuard, who was trying to cover Borghi.
Stuard was late and trailed badly, so Gordon lofted the ball to Borghi, who outraced everyone down the sideline 76 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 lead. But there was a flag. Arconado was called for offensive pass interference.
Replays showed Arconado didn’t contact a defender until he was on the other side of the field and the ball was almost in Borghi’s hands, some 20 yards away.
“Oh, c’mon!” was Riddick’s reaction as the replay ran. He paused, then continued. “That’s an interesting call. It didn’t materially affect the play.”
Flemming was even more emphatic, saying “it had absolutely nothing to do with the play,” but conceding that “maybe” it needed to be called.