WAC Backs Getting Noticed

For years, the Western Athletic Conference's image was a wide open as the region that gives the league its name.

Louisiana Tech -- thanks to record-smashing careers by quarterbacks Tim Rattay and Luke McCown -- played a key role in establishing those pass-first assumptions. Reigning champion Hawaii, with its run-and-gun offense, took that style all the way to a BCS bowl.

But Tech coach Derek Dooley sees a new trend away from high-flying finesse amongst the teams hoping to topple the Warriors. Many, Dooley's 'Dawgs among them, are focused more on building a powerful running game.

"One of the myths, and its been a great marketing tool for the WAC, has been calling it a wide-open league," Dooley said. "People don't realize how physical this league is. If you look at the teams that have won the most consistently over the past four or five years, they have been physical."

That trend toward gritty toughness begins with returning Louisiana Tech senior Patrick Jackson, a second-team all-conference selection who gained 950 yards in 2007 -- despite hobbling around on a bum toe. The problem eventually required off-season surgery.

"He did not show his best last season, because he had that toe injury," Dooley said.

Despite missing spring practices, Jackson says he's set to go: "This is the best I've felt since I was in high school," he said.

Dooley, it's clear, is counting on it.

"We hope he will be 100 percent," the second-year coach said. "If he is, you will see a really special player."

Dooley should know: He recruited, but then ultimately passed on, Jackson during a previous assistant coaching stint at LSU.

"When I took the job (at Tech), I knew Patrick," Dooley said. "He kind of gets on me because we didn't take him. So now he says: ‘You are stuck with me.' We probably made a mistake (at LSU). He's a very good runner, a fine young man. He is going to graduate in the winter."

Between now and then, Tech will face a series of impressive running threats across a rugged WAC slate. The conference returns seven of its Top 10 rushers, and three of them ran for more than 1,000 yards a year ago.

Luke Lippincott, the league's top rusher in 2007 with 1,420, is back with Nevada. So is Idaho's Deonte Jackson, who finished second in the WAC with 1,175 yards -- while averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Boise boasts a 1,000-yard rusher in Ian Johnson, who also picked up 5 yards per try.

Tech is at Boise on Oct. 1, welcomes Idaho on Oct. 18, then plays host to Nevada on Nov. 29.

Fresno State boasts perhaps the league's most impressive trio in Ryan Mathews (866 yards in 2007), Lonyae Miller (609) and Anthony Harding (420). And San Jose State will certainly be welcoming back Yonus Davis, who received a medical redshirt after missing 2007. SJSU averaged a paltry 84 yards rushing a night in his absence, just as year after Davis dashed for 1,007 yards.

Tech faces Fresno in Ruston on Nov. 1, and travels to San Jose a week later.

"It seems like every team you play has a good runner," Dooley said. "It makes me feel good, because it's everything I believe in: You've got to run the ball and play physical, and the teams that have been consistently winning in this league are doing that."

That said, there's still some ground to be made up. While the WAC had two teams (Hawaii, of course, and also New Mexico State) in the Top 5 for passing offense, there were only three in the Top 35 for rushing -- Nevada at No. 12, Fresno State at 14 and Boise State at 33.

Tech, which reports on Sunday, will have its own questions in the passing game. Dooley is considering a group of quarterbacks to replace the departed Zac Champion, including Georgia Tech transfer Taylor Bennett, unproven sophomore Ross Jenkins and Auburn transfer Steve Ensminger.

Bennett, who started for former fired Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey, appears to be the front runner.

That would be fine with Jackson, who started 11 games at running back last season and played in all 12.

"He has shown great team leadership," Jackson said of Bennett. "He's very composed, very mature. He's the type of guy who will be easy for the guys to rally around."

Should Tech's new passer struggle in transition, the squad's need for a stout rushing attack becomes more pronounced. That certainly was the case in 2007, when Dooley's offense occasionally misfired.

"I thought our running game was good enough, if we had a passing game to complement it -- but we did not," Dooley said. "When you are not able to throw the ball, it effects you on third down, and we did not do very well on third down -- and we did not make very many big plays. Consequently, we had some tough games."

Louisiana Tech finished 5-7 overall, and 4-4 in the WAC.

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