Times are a-changing at Washington State.
It’s 2020, what else do you expect?
Those who’ve been accustomed to Air Raid box scores may have had to perform a few double takes Saturday night while monitoring the Cougars’ season opener at Oregon State — a 38-28 win for the visitors at crowdless Reser Stadium.
When athletic director Pat Chun hired Nick Rolovich from Hawaii earlier this year, he wanted to ensure Mike Leach’s successor was a good fit — in terms of personality, yes, but also in terms of offensive strategy.
Rolovich’s run-and-shoot and Leach’s Air Raid both derive from the spread offense family, using a pass-first approach to open the field and exploit pockets of space within the defense’s coverage.
If WSU’s first game revealed anything, however, the offensive schemes are more like third cousins removed rather than twin brothers.
Below, we dissect five statistics from the season opener that signal the shift in offensive culture at WSU under Rolovich.
The first number is Washington State’s passing yardage — one of the lowest totals for the Cougars in recent memory. The second is the Cougars’ rushing total — the program’s highest since 2016, when Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks ran for more than 200 yards in three separate games.
It’s been a full decade since a WSU team finished with more rushing yardage than passing yardage.
The last time that happened was against Oregon State, on Nov. 13, 2010, when a rushing attack spearheaded by quarterback Jeff Tuel and running back James Montgomery combined for 146 of the 221 yards the Cougars piled up in a comfortable 31-14 victory.
This isn’t something you can expect to see on a frequent basis at WSU. In the two years Rolovich employed the run-and-shoot at Hawaii, the rushing yards outnumbered the passing yards once, although it wasn’t uncommon for Hawaii’s quarterbacks and running backs — known as “power backs” in the offense — to combine from anywhere between 150-200 rushing yards, with the passing game producing another 200-300.
The Cougars knew what they had in Max Borghi, but the emergence of Deon McIntosh against the Beavers may prompt the play-callers to showcase the run game in a bigger way than it was in Hawaii.
After eight years of all-out Air Raid, it may be the last thing any Pac-12 foe expects.
“Well, that’s a whole big part of the run-and-shoot,” WSU right guard Josh Watson said Monday. “We’re definitely going to run it now and it’s something to look forward to.”
Rather, something Watson will look forward to.
“Of course,” he said, “I love run-blocking and I kind of missed it, but we’re back at it again and we’re just going to keep rolling.
“It’s just a different type of block. You’re not doing the same thing over and over. I like run-blocking. When I was in high school, I did a lot of run-blocking. Then I developed my pass-blocking a lot lately. So, it’s fun to run-block again.
Leach had an unorthodox idea of what offensive balance meant in a football game: distribution of touches to all four receiver positions and the running back(s), rather than the customary ratio of run plays versus pass plays.
While there were occasional outliers — most notably Gabe Marks and River Cracraft — Leach’s offense dispersed touches generously, rarely favoring a single wideout. With eight receivers rotating at the four positions and two or three running backs often shuffling in and out of the game, it was common for as many as 10 players to finish with at least two receptions.
Counting the number of receiving targets for all 102 games played under Leach, here are how many players caught passes per game for the Cougars from 2012-19: 2012, 8.5; 2013, 10.6; 2014, 8.9; 2015, 10.4; 2016, 10.2; 2017, 8.8; 2018, 9.9 and 2019, 8.3.
No fewer than seven receivers, and as many as 14, caught a pass in a single game during Leach’s tenure.
For those accustomed to Air Raid levels of distribution, it was another stat sheet shocker to see just four players catch passes in the opener at OSU: Travell Harris, Jamire Calvin, Renard Bell and Calvin Jackson Jr.
Rolovich said there were opportunities for a fifth wideout, Lucas Bacon, to get involved, but considering the coach doesn’t usually employ a tailback in the passing game, and doesn’t cycle through receivers at the rate Leach did, it’s likely more than 90% of the production will be funneled through four players.
“Probably not as many as you’re used to around here,” Rolovich said, asked if more players would be involved in the passing game. “… We don’t tend to rotate as much as maybe has been done here in the past. But I think another aspect of that is, Deon averaging like 7.2 yards per carry or whatever it was. There was some real confidence in the run game also.”
Jayden de Laura’s college football career is 60 minutes old and the true freshman already lays claim to the best rushing performance by a WSU quarterback since the OSU game from 2010.
The Honolulu native rushed eight times for 43 yards and a touchdown, adding another element to the run-and-shoot that should make it hard for opponents to scheme for — especially in Year 1, against Pac-12 foes who’ve seen nothing quite like it.
The Cougars found a variety of ways to employ their quarterback as a runner at Reser Stadium:
1, Traditional scramble plays in which de Laura, recognizing all four of his receivers were blanketed, relied on his instinct, intuition and athleticism to escape the pocket and pick up a handful of yards.
2, Run-pass options that seem to be a staple of the run-and-shoot playbook. On more than a few occasions, de Laura rolled out of the pocket and scanned the field to determine whether the defensive back would creep up and play the QB run or drop back in coverage. If the DB peeled off, de Laura hit the open receiver. If he didn’t, de Laura took it himself.
3, Designed QB runs. These aren’t as common in the offense, but de Laura’s 5-yard rushing score came on an option read in which he motioned a handoff to McIntosh, pulled the ball back into his arms and swept around the edge before diving into the end zone.
The Beavers only brought de Laura down for one sack Saturday night. It probably shouldn’t have happened, either. When WSU’s QB caught a snap on the fourth play of the fourth quarter, he dropped back, turned his shoulder and immediately ran into a black and orange wall named Kitan Oladapo as he started to roll out to his blind side.
The casual observer may have chalked it up to a freshman error, not recognizing where the blitz was coming from, but Rolovich later took the blame, acknowledging, “I tried to create a little bit and it’s too much to put on any quarterback most likely, but especially a true freshman in his first game.
“The sack he took, that’s on me,” Rolovich reaffirmed Monday in a virtual news conference.
“Those were situations we really talked about in training camp with him. We know you have this ability to be off-script, but we just don’t want to hurt the team.”
Generally, the play of WSU’s offensive line — arguably the strongest group on the team, pound for pound — combined with de Laura’s mobility should lead to less quarterback abuse in the run-and-shoot.
As Leach’s offensive line developed, sack numbers naturally dipped, and the Cougars only conceded 33 sacks in 26 games (1.2 per game) in his final two seasons.
But that came after conceding 3.3 sacks per game in 2017, 2.0 in 2016, 2.6 in 2015, 3.0 in 2014, 2.0 in 2013 and 4.7 in 2012.
In Year 2 of Rolovich’s run-and-shoot project at Hawaii, QBs Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro were brought down just 21 times in 15 games, or 1.4 times per game.
One of the most common misconceptions about the Air Raid is how it attacks the field. More often than not, Leach’s pass plays were short 5-, 10- or 15-yard pops that aimed to stretch the field horizontally.
Rolovich’s offense, meanwhile, is more of a downfield attack designed to attack the defense vertically —v one reason why smaller, quicker receivers like Calvin and Jackson are able to thrive on the outside.
Saturday, the Cougars averaged 12.6 yards per play through the air and scored on three explosive plays: a 29-yard pass from de Laura to Harris, a 28-yard pass from de Laura to Harris and a 44-yard Harris touchdown run. Before Harris’ second touchdown, de Laura threw a 30-plus yard pass to Bell on the other side of the field, but the would-be touchdown was called back for an offensive line penalty.
In 2019, the Air Raid did a better job of stretching defenses vertically, largely because of Anthony Gordon’s tendency to throw downfield and because of his rapport with “Z” receiver Easop Winston Jr.
The Cougars averaged 11.3 yards per completion last year, but never came close to scratching that number in the seven years prior, with 7.2 ypa in 2017, 6.7 in 2017, 7.2 in 2016, 7.2 in 2015, 7.4 in 2014 and 6.3 in 2013.
As for Hawaii’s offense in 2019, at 12.7 yards per completion, the Rainbow Warriors were essentially on par with the Cougars after one game.