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Sports >  WSU football

Jacob Thorpe: Washington State’s offense needed a rushing threat. It got that and then some Saturday

Nov. 5, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 5, 2022 at 9:27 p.m.

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

This column almost began with a disjointed, too-wordy joke about Stanford’s football and debate teams swapping places prior to Washington State’s 52-14 defeat of the Cardinal on Saturday afternoon.

But this same Stanford team did beat Notre Dame this season, so the Cougars deserve more credit for how disconcertingly bad they made the home team look. Football is the only violent sport I can think of where the officials would not have stopped the bout before halftime in the interest of participant safety. In other words, this was a first-round knockout.

At a glance, there is rarely more to be gleaned from blowouts other than one team played substantially better than its opponent. But since the maligned WSU offense scored more points in the first half (42) than it had in the previous three games combined (41), it is worth our time to look under the hood a little bit.

Modern Air Raid offenses incorporate running backs more than their predecessors. Hal Mumme and Mike Leach recognized that you get more yards by passing than throwing, and took that concept to its natural extreme. Then, students of theirs like Art Briles and Dana Holgerson looked at the newly spread out defenses that were hyperfocused on defending the pass, and decided to run it a little more often.

That 30-second history lesson brings us to today. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris’ version of the Air Raid, oft called the “Coug Raid” in some corners, relies on a solid ground game. Starting running back Nakia Watson returned from an injury that kept him out a couple of games, which conspicuously were the games when WSU’s offense stuttered and you started seeing chatter online about whether or not Morris was doing a good job.

The Cougars are still without backup running back Jaylin Jenkins, who was the Pac-12 Player of the Week three weeks ago for his impressive work against USC.

Watson rushed for 166 yards on Saturday, the Cougars gained more than 300 total yards on the ground, and gee, the offense sure looked a lot smarter, huh?

WSU’s success running the ball was not a byproduct of the passing game putting the Cardinal on its heels, either.

Watson ran the ball on WSU’s first three plays of the game and the Cougars’ first drive ended with a 3-yard rushing touchdown by Leyton Smithson, the first of his career and the fifth rushing play of the six-play drive.

When Morris came to WSU from Incarnate Word, along with quarterback Cam Ward, much was understandably made of the duo’s record-setting success in the passing game.

What did not get as much coverage was how much IWU’s offensive success could be credited to All-Southland Conference first-team running back Kevin Brown. The offense Morris brought to Pullman has always been predicated on having a strong rushing attack, and recent injuries have had a predictable impact on its output.

The Cougars sit one win away from bowl eligibility with back-to-back games against the Arizona schools, both of which are among the Pac-12’s worst at defending the run.

If Watson and backup Jenkins can stay healthy, perhaps the WSU offense can build some cohesion and momentum in those games heading into a regular-season finale against a Washington defense that looks pretty stout against the run.

And then maybe Morris will earn a pass for his offense’s need to run.

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