Even though the Pac-12 moved Sunday’s game between Washington State and USC into a time slot that shouldn’t interfere too directly with the NFL schedule, the cross-divisional matchup may not attract the casual football fan the same way it did in 2017 and 2018 – both prime-time Friday matchups that collected strong ratings and supplied nonpartisan viewers with exciting finishes.
Maybe not, but two trailblazers of modern offense will likely have their eyes glued to the FS1 broadcast Sunday afternoon.
Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it may have even been a hoot to get 88-year-old Mouse Davis and 68-year-old Hal Mumme into the same room.
The 4:30 p.m. game in Los Angeles will pit WSU’s Nick Rolovich against USC’s Clay Helton, but more indirectly, it pits the offensive thinking of Davis, the man who popularized the run-and-shoot offense, against that of Mumme, who years later began sketching the Air Raid on paper napkins in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Davis’ offense came first, and in some ways helped inform the ideas later used by Mumme.
Both have convinced a younger generation of coaches to adopt their spread offense schemes and Sunday’s showdown in LA may be the first example of a Power Five football game matching the run-and-shoot and the Air Raid.
On one sideline is Rolovich, who transformed WSU into a run-and-shoot school after eight years of Air Raiding with Mike Leach. On the other is Graham Harrell, who learned the Air Raid from Leach, first as a player at Texas Tech and then as an offensive analyst/outside receivers coach in Pullman.
“After losing coach Leach, (WSU) really found somebody that fit system-wise offensively the personnel they have,” Helton said in a virtual media availability earlier this week. “Rolo’s system is different than Mike’s, but I will say this: He does the same philosophy of using 10-personnel, four-wides package, spreading you out across the field and attacking every inch of the field. Whether it’s vertically, horizontally, in between the tackles, with the run game.
“… When he got hired, I think we all in the league said this is going to be a pain in the butt.”
If anything, the matchup demonstrates Leach’s longevity as a head coach, with one of the first quarterbacks he recruited, the 35-year-old Harrell, coordinating USC’s offense, and one of the most recent, true freshman Jayden de Laura, playing the position for the Cougars.
Harrell tried to make de Laura a Trojan, offering the Honolulu native a scholarship to play at USC well after Leach and the Cougars got a commitment.
In summation, de Laura was a run-and-shoot QB in high school who signed to play in one Air Raid system, was being coveted by another and wound up playing in the run-and-shoot anyway when Rolovich was hired by WSU.
“He’s a kid we recruited out of Hawaii, that we’ve got a lot of respect for,” Helton said. “He’s kind of got that ‘it’ factor. He’s a winner. He finds ways to make creative plays, talented arm that can make all the throws and he’s protecting the ball really well this year.”
The Trojans have never seen Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense. At least this year, perhaps the Cougars can use the element of surprise to their benefit.
In theory, the Cougars have a good idea of what the Trojans will try to do on offense. WSU’s defense isn’t fully comprised of returning starters, but there are a handful who hope their experience facing Leach’s Air Raid in practice will help them contain Harrell’s variation of the same offense.
“A lot of the senior guys here, older guys here have been around that type of offense before,” linebacker Dillon Sherman said. “So, we’re getting ready for everything.”
Harrell’s twist on the offense features a more prominent run game. Trojans running backs are averaging just shy of 30 carries per game. By comparison, Leach’s running backs averaged nearly a third of that in the coach’s final season at WSU.
“I just think they keep coming at you, with a lot of different wave,” WSU defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said.
“The biggest thing with their running backs is they’re all different. Power, speed, athleticism. … That’s what makes it hard, but that’s this league. You’re going to face an NFL back every week and we’ve got to be prepared for it. Our guys will be up for the challenge.”
Another wrinkle could be problematic for the Cougars. In Harrell’s Air Raid, the Trojans use tight ends as reinforcements in the run-blocking game and secondary options in the passing game.
WSU, meanwhile, hasn’t rostered a tight end since Paul Wulff’s final season in 2011.
The Cougars under Leach typically tried to prepare for the position by converting a bigger scout team receiver during the week of practice leading up to the game.
USC’s top four wide receivers, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Drake London, Tyler Vaughns and Bru McCoy, are all over 140 yards on the season, but tight end Erik Krommenhoek has been QB Kedon Slovis’ most reliable option in the end zone, with a team-leading two touchdowns.
“It’s not all completely like what they used to go against in practice,” Rolovich said. “The concepts show up, but there’s more variety in USC’s offense, in my opinion.
“So, I’m sure some of the concepts look familiar, but there’s enough that’s different they need to prepare for that they wouldn’t be as comfortable seeing that they would’ve seen last year.”
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