COMMENTARY: The missing piece on offense

PULLMAN -- Pullman is a city overflowing with school spirit, flooded by expectations. Unfortunately, and as was made clear after Saturday night's loss to Cal, it's also drowning in a sea of sentiment of what the Cougs should be, and/or used to be on offense. To get back on the right offensive track, the Cougs must do one thing above all else…


For Coug fans and pundits alike, a 2-5 start for this Washington State team is surprising and disappointing. After the months of offseason hype and expectation following the hire of Mike Leach, a WSU offense that preached its depth and experience at QB and WR has seen enough turmoil and excessive blunders to last two seasons.

It's an Air Raid offense still trying to find it's wind.

Leach's system is a high-flying, point-scoring machine.

Cougar fans are still waiting to see it.

THE OFFENSE relies upon a bevy of high-percentage completions that methodically move the ball down the field. These completions are predicated on quick, shifty receivers that can find space in the defense and move the ball. None of that was in evidence against Cal.

The quarterbacks are completing just a shade over 50 percent of their throws this year. Compare that to a 67 percent completion percentage for Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams, and you identify one glaring issue.

"When my number is called, I go out there and try to move the ball and score some points," Jeff Tuel said. "It's my job not to throw it high, it's their job to come down with some of the high balls."

MOST OF THE TIME, a running game opens up the pass. In the Air Raid offense, that should be no different.

"I thought we played really hard," Mike Leach said. "Did we leave meat scraps on the field? Undoubtedly."

The Cougs have seen defenses drop eight defenders back into coverage much of the season, making passing the ball a real chore. This is where the run game should come into play. With fewer men in the box, the Cougars should be able to routinely gash opponents for five yards per carry -- minimum. But they do not.

"I thought the running game took a step forward," Leach said. "We're learning to be physical."

Still, with the exception of a 40-yard burst by junior Leon Brooks, the offense was able to scrounge up a discomforting -4 rushing yards on the evening (including sacks).

The Cougs entered Saturday ranked 119th in rushing yards and yards per attempt, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry -- abysmal numbers for a team that has seen a number of teams rush three and four defenders as much as the Cougs have.

Cal sent more men than others have, but there were still plenty of times they dropped 7-8 into coverage. The Cougs could not take advantage.

""When we play bigger ands stronger opponents we have trouble moving them around," Leach said. "We're a young enough group to where we're still learning."

The Cougs had 10 opportunities to convert third and short or fourth and short yardage situations Saturday. They moved the chains just twice on those plays. Of those 10 opportunities, the Cougs threw the ball 10 times.


A prototypical offense would suggest running the ball on third or fourth and less than two to go. Leach has a philosophy in these situations, a simple one at that.

"Convert ‘em," Leach said. "We just need to convert ‘em."

Don't get me wrong, the Air Raid system is exciting. It's an offense that can and will put points on the board at Washington State. Guys like true freshman Brett Bartolone, who was WSU's leading receiver against Cal, can certainly benefit from such a quick-strike attack. That said, in order for these hypothetical extraordinary point totals to be scored, drives must be maintained.

If an offense needs a yard, you have to be confident enough in your running backs and offensive line to get that arms length.

This kind of neglect for the running backs is uncommon to Leach. In his final year at Texas Tech in 2008, Leach's running backs scored 19 touchdowns, an unexpected statistic from an offense founded on putting the ball in the air.

THE FUTURE STILL feels bright – namely because the missed opportunities have been so numerous -- and apparent to anyone viewing. It may sound like a broken record, but with the right players and a deeper bench, the Air Raid offense can soar at WSU. It's been done before, it will happen again. Teams like West Virginia, Houston and Texas A&M have all put up prodigious numbers in recent years.

It'll come for the Cougs.

But for that to happen, this team has to run the ball, and run the ball effectively. It's that simple.

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