PULLMAN – Make no mistake, he’s one of the most successful college football players on the West Coast, a two-time preseason All-Pac-12 First Team selection and a household name for anybody with even peripheral knowledge of Washington State’s football program.
Yet despite the production, recognition and accolades, when Max Borghi visualized what a football career at Washington State might look like, the experience was drastically different than what the reality of the last three years in Pullman have been.
In many ways that’s how year four came to fruition for Borghi, who could’ve gambled on himself, bypassed his senior season and entered the 2021 NFL Draft. Instead, with 15 unfinished course credits and plenty of unfinished business on the football field, he elected to return to school.
“I think I’ve been kind of in the shadows a lot of my career here,” Borghi said recently. “I haven’t quite had the opportunity to show the country who I am. I think the state of Washington knows who I am, but I think I want to prove to the whole country who I am.”
So, how does Borghi get there? What does success look like this fall for someone who’s already accumulated 2,277 all-purpose yards and 29 touchdowns in 27 games at WSU, all while averaging 6.1 yards per carry?
“I’m scoring every game, at least,” Borghi said. “One at least. I think that’s definitely reasonable and that’s a good goal.”
It’s a testament to Borghi’s confidence and self-belief, two things that have endeared him to Cougar fans over the last four years, and on a few occasions made him public enemy No. 1 among opposing Pac-12 fanbases. In 2019, the running back guaranteed a victory over Oregon State in the home finale before providing the exclamation mark with a 2-yard TD run to clinch a 54-53 victory over the Beavers. In a postgame press conference, Borghi neglected to offer a prediction for the next game at Washington, but playfully told reporters “I will be scoring…a lot.”
“We’re on a little roll there (in 2019) and I like to get people heated up. I’m every fan base’s favorite person,” Borghi quipped. “They all love me because I run my mouth.”
If rival Pac-12 fans develop those same feelings toward Borghi in 2021, it’s likely because of how effectively Borghi is running the ball rather than how often he’s running his mouth – although it’s never safe to count out the latter. The senior running back has indicated on multiple times he’s rejuvenated by Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which shares a few of the same core principles as Mike Leach’s Air Raid, but provides more rushing opportunities for ball carriers.
Even though he’s emerged as arguably the nation’s most potent pass-catching tailback – Borghi was the only player at his position named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list – the Arvada, Colorado, native still maintains he’s “a better running back than I am a receiving back” and laments that fans, pundits and NFL scouts have “really only seen me as a receiving back.”
Two years of Air Raid football were ostensibly more difficult than Borghi ever let on.
“There was times I was questioning my choice and a little frustrated running the ball two times a game. I’m like, ‘What did I do?’” Borghi said. “I’m definitely very grateful for my decision and I think this was all in God’s plan. … “To be honest I don’t know if I would’ve stayed sane being in the Air Raid for four years straight, but I was glad honestly to see that I’m going to get the opportunity to run the ball more in the run-and-shoot.”
A critic may be quick to point out the obvious: didn’t Borghi understand what he was getting into when he signed on to be an Air Raid running back in 2017?
“I didn’t realize it was going to be just checked runs. I thought it was actually drawn run plays in the playbook, but I learned quickly,” he said. “I’m grateful for all that opportunity I had under Leach. I think I really excelled my game and was able to show a lot of stuff I wouldn’t be able to show right now.”
Borghi and his NFL Draft stock should reap the benefits of a full season in the run-and-shoot. In 2019, Rolovich’s running backs at the University of Hawaii combined for 256 rushing attempts – 47 more than Borghi’s had in more than two seasons on the Palouse.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound tailback who runs with precision, speed and power doesn’t have a target in mind when it comes to total rushing yards in 2021, but “obviously I want to go over 1,000 without a doubt.” He’s also eager to catch balls out of the slot “other than swing passes and flat routes” that were staples of Leach’s Air Raid.
“I want to be one of the best running backs in this country,” Borghi added, “and I just want to make plays and work hard and it’s going to fall into place.”
Not much fell into place last season for the Cougars, and specifically Borghi, who suffered a back injury prior to the team’s first game at Oregon State.
It caused him to miss games against OSU (Nov. 7), Oregon (Nov. 14) and USC (Dec. 6). He would’ve been sidelined for games against Stanford (Nov. 21) and Washington (Nov. 27) had those not been scrubbed due to COVID-19 too.
Opening up about the experience, Borghi indicated the injury wasn’t as severe as it probably looked on the outside. But even as he lobbied to get back on the field – a weekly procedure of the running back making his case to WSU’s athletic training staff – Borghi was urged to consider the bigger picture.
“I felt fine to play,” he said, “so that’s what really bugged me.”
Finally, the week before WSU’s Dec. 12 home game against Cal, Borghi got a green light. Only the game itself didn’t. While the running back and his teammates warmed up on the field, Cal officials learned a player had come down with COVID-19. The game was cancelled 90 minutes before kickoff and Borghi’s return was on hold seven more days.
“I was really, really pissed just because it was my first game back, I was super eager to play, I was finally like here’s my shot to show a little bit of what I can do in this offense and show I’m alive and healthy,” he said. “Then the rug pull. The whole team was really frustrated.”
So Borghi’s season turned into a one-game showcase against Utah, in which the running back rushed 10 times for 95 yards with one touchdown and one fumble. Though fans spent the next 21 days waiting on pins and needles to learn what No. 21’s next move would be, Borghi’s Jan. 19 announcement was more of a formality. Unless he was going to receive a first- or second-round grade from NFL scouts, an early exit didn’t make much logistical sense for someone who was one semester shy of obtaining his undergraduate degree.
“I was nowhere near satisfied to where I wanted to be,” Borghi said. “Hadn’t really proven much and I feel like I still have a lot to prove. I knew going into that (Utah) game I was going to return, so it was pretty set in stone.”
Describing the process from his vantage point, Rolovich said in February, “There weren’t a whole lot of conversations, I’m not into trying to tell a kid what he’s got to do. I want people that want to be here, even in recruiting, and I think Max knows that and there’s no doubt Max has ability and it’s definitely a benefit to get him back.”
If Borghi makes good on his newest promise – one touchdown per game – he’ll have a chance to match Steve Broussard for the school’s career touchdowns record (41). Though rushing opportunities have been few and far between for Borghi to this point in his career, he’s still tied for fifth in career rushing touchdowns (19) and needs just seven to knock Jerome Harrison off the No. 2 spot. Fifteen rushing TDs would make Borghi the school’s career leader, surpassing Broussard.
“I think my legacy will draw itself up. I want to obviously be one of the best running backs to come out of this place,” he said. “I think with another good year and I stay humble, work hard and have a great season, I think it’s very doable. We’ve had some very great guys in the running backs room, but I definitely want to get my name up on that wall so I can have my name there forever.”
In many ways, Borghi is rushing toward immortality at WSU. In others, he’s just glad to be rushing at all.
“Feeling healthy, feeling great and ready to run the ball,” Borghi said. “…There’s a reason for why I’m here and I think it’s all going to work itself out and I think it slowly is and I don’t know, I think it’s all worked itself out. I don’t know.
“Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen.”
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