Last year’s team rushed for 1,560 yards, which is the most for any squad coached by Mike Leach. For this season, the first priority is simple: start 1-0.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Washington State senior running back Jamal Morrow remembers the puzzled looks he got from people when he first decided to play for the Cougars.
Why would a running back, he would get asked, want to play for an offense that throws the ball more than anyone else in college football?
Entering his senior season, Morrow is getting fewer and fewer puzzled looks about the Cougars’ rushing attack.
Since Mike Leach’s first season, the Cougars have tripled their run production. In 2012, Leach’s Air Raid offense netted a mere 1.38 yards per rushing attempt (that includes quarterback sacks, and there was a whole lot of those that first season — 57 in all, most in the nation).
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In 2016, with a three-headed rushing attack of Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks, the Cougars averaged 4.3 yards per carry (including sacks) and rushed for more yards (1,560) than any team Leach has coached.
“In the beginning of the season, teams aren’t really respecting the run,” Morrow said during Pac-12 media days Thursday at the Hollywood & Highland Center. “They said, ‘If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to run the ball.’ And we’ve shown that we can actually beat you running the ball.
“Last year, we slowly started to see (defenses) creep up and respect our run game later in the season, and that’s what you want, to have that type of respect, that teams are really worried about your running game.”
Morrow, Williams and Wicks are all back this season. Could the run game become even more prominent to complement Luke Falk’s right arm?
Leach was noncommittal when asked that Thursday, but did say, “I think we have the most productive backs in the league.”
Morrow, for one, hopes the ground game continues to be featured, and he says Falk is excellent at checking out of a pass and into a run if the defensive alignment warrants it.
“Now to actually have running the ball and Air Raid together, it’s dangerous,” Morrow said. “Now you’ve got to pick your poison between the two.”
A new beginning
For Washington State, the first priority this season is simple: start 1-0.
It sounds simple, anyway. Executing that goal has been anything but during Leach’s five seasons on the Palouse.
The Cougars have lost their last five season openers, including home losses to lower-division opponents Eastern Washington and Portland State in each of the past two seasons.
They rebounded well enough in both seasons — winning eight straight in 2016, and finishing with nine wins in 2015 — but getting over that first-game hurdle has been a point of emphasis this offseason.
The Cougars, picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North this year, open the season Sept. 2 against another Big Sky team, Montana State, at Martin Stadium.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in a position like that any more,” senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer said.
“It’s tough knowing that we haven’t won a season opener under Leach yet. But I think we’ve finally got the guys that understand what it’s going to take to be 1-0. I think we have the right amount of experience … so I’m excited for this Week 1.”
Leach blamed part of the first-game struggles on youth.
“I think the biggest thing is (they’re) older. We’ve got a little more experience,” he said. “Last year, we were predominantly freshmen and sophomores. I think we struggled as far as adjusting to being on the field for the first time in some cases. We did some really good things in practice, go out there first game, college football first time, and all of a sudden eyes got wide and you try to do too much.”
After an 0-2 start last season, the Cougars won eight in a row — but lost their last three games to finish 8-5.
“I felt like we got really complacent,” Morrow said. “We just figured like, ‘OK, we’re Washington State — people are going to respect the logo.’ At the same time, we’ve got to realize we’re Washington State and (the program’s) been down in the gutter of college football, so having that — we just got real complacent. It sucks, you know.
“We have to find a way to continue to raise the bar when it gets to the end of the season. Because it’s a long season, of course. So we just started getting a little complacent and thought every time we stepped on the field we were going to win it. So that’s something we definitely worked on this offseason.”