It took five years, but Washington State now has an efficient ground attack to go with its Air Raid offense. Here's a look at how it was built.

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Midway through the first quarter of Washington State’s eventual 56-21 win over Cal last week, the Cougars were up 7-0 and driving, with the ball on the Cal 2-yard line.

First-and-goal: Luke Falk targets River Cracraft in the end zone. Incomplete.

Second-and-goal: Falk throws toward Tavares Martin Jr. Incomplete.

As the Cougars line up for third down, junior running back Gerard Wicks looks right at WSU coach Mike Leach on the sidelines and points to himself. Give me the ball.

Third-and-goal: Falk hands off to Wicks, who powers it into the end zone.

Touchdown, Cougars.

That score from Wicks was one of the 22 rushing touchdowns Washington State (8-2 overall, 7-0 Pac-12) has scored this season, and the most since the 1997 team rushed for 27.

That offensive series perfectly captures how integral the run game has been to 20th-ranked WSU’s success this season. It also shows how much confidence WSU’s three-man running back committee is playing with as they prepare for a mammoth clash with Pac-12 South leader No. 12 Colorado (8-2, 6-1) and the Buffaloes’ 29th ranked rush defense that’s allowing 131.5 rush yards per game.

With three 200-yard rushing performances this season, WSU’s suddenly vibrant run game is churning out Leach-era record numbers and has added a new dimension to the Cougars’ Air Raid offense.

“Back in the day, we’d just run it and nothing would get done, and I’d be like, ‘Just don’t run it. Just throw me the ball. We get more yards when you throw me the ball than if you run it,” senior receiver Gabe Marks said after the Cal game, when WSU’s backs combined for 254 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per rush. “But now, they’re averaging eight yards per carry or some kind of crazy stat. It’s hard to deny that type of production.”

Affectionately known to fans as WSU’s “three-headed monster,” the Cougars’ running backs Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams are the most productive running back group in the Pac-12 this year.

They’ve accounted for a league-leading 28 total touchdowns (rushing, receiving and special teams) and 2,299 total yards – 1,400 rushing, 899 receiving – this season. The next most productive group of Pac-12 backs play at Oregon, and have accounted for 2,219 yards and 25 touchdowns.

WSU’s backs need only 101 more rushing yards to become the first set of Leach running backs to hit the 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yard benchmarks in a single season.

The emergence of the Air Raid’s ground wing has caught much of the college football world by surprise, but for Leach and running backs coach Jim Mastro, this is how it was always supposed to look.

“We’ve always run the ball some and we’ve always had production out of our backs,” Leach said. “Yards are the same whether on the ground or in the air, so it’s not unusual for our running back position to have more yards than that position on the other team. We’d like to have the highest level of production from that position.”

It just took WSU a while to get there. When Leach first got to Pullman in November 2011, the level of talent left much to be desired. The offensive line averaged 288.6 pounds, and the Cougars didn’t have the multi-tooled running backs they needed to plug into the Air Raid.

“The first two years, we didn’t have the personnel to do anything,” Mastro said. “Then Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks came in, and they probably weren’t ready to play yet as freshmen, but we had to play them. Now they’re grown men. And James Williams? He came in as a grown man.”

Morrow and Wicks saw extensive action as redshirt freshmen in 2014, but the Cougars didn’t have all the pieces they needed to implement the ground game. That would come in 2015, when Luke Falk became the starting quarterback and the Cougars’ offensive line bulked up to an average of 310 pounds-per-starter.

“There’s no coincidence that the run game has been so productive with Luke Falk at quarterback,” Mastro said. “The No. 1 thing (behind WSU’s recent rushing success) is that our quarterback gets us into runs against great looks.

“He understands that playing quarterback in this system is about doing the right things, and not about throwing 750 yards a game, but, if you’ve got a run, run it. If you don’t have that, get the ball out of your hand quickly, if you don’t have that, drop back and let the ball rip.”

Production by Pac-12 Running Backs in 2016
(On offense and special teams)
Team: Rush Yards: Receiving Yards: Total Yards Total TDs
WSU 1,400 899 2,299 28
Oregon 1,873 346 2,219 25
Washington 1,884 153 2,037 14
Stanford 1,730 298 2,028 14
USC 1,797 185 1,982 13
Cal 1,667 238 1,905 11
Colorado 1,449 443 1,892 18
Utah 1,649 24 1,673 16
Arizona State 1,188 466 1,654 19
Oregon State 1,189 272 1,461 15
UCLA 905 270 1,175 11
Arizona 850 43 893 6

WSU scored eight rushing touchdowns and averaged 80.1 rush yards per game last year – up from a woeful 39.8 yards per game average in 2014. This year, the Cougars are averaging 132 rushing yards per game – highest in Leach’s head coaching career.

“A lot of that has to do with the production of our offensive line,” Leach says. “They’re the biggest group we’ve had. And offensive line is a position that needs to be choreographed together … all five relying on what the other guy is doing at the same moment.
“Over time we’ve become better synchronized there, and I think as we’ve gotten older, we’ve also become tougher and more aggressive there.”

Then there’s the matter of the backs themselves. In Morrow, Wicks and Williams, the Cougars have an answer to just about anything a defense can throw their way.

“I think they all bring something different to the table,” Leach said. “Wicks is bigger and stronger, Morrow is real versatile, and James is probably the most dynamic.”

But, says Mastro, the greatest strength of WSU’s three-headed running back monster is how they’re all proficient in doing the three things the Cougars ask of every running back they recruit: rushing, catching and blocking.

Mastro plays all three backs in every game, and generally leans toward whichever back has the hot hand. When one gets tired, another gets inserted into the lineup, and the Cougars don’t miss a beat.

“They appreciate that they’re getting to play fresh all the time,” Mastro said. “Right now, they’ve rushed for 1,400 yards on the season and have 900 receiving yards. One guy couldn’t have done that. But three? Yeah. We did it.