Mastro's surprising favorite RB play in win

SPOKANE - Jim Mastro's favorite play in the win over Portland State that involved his running backs didn't come on a rushing attempt. It wasn't when the 'backs were on the receiving end of a pass, either. No, the play that pleased Mastro most saw neither Jamal Morrow or Gerard Wicks ever even touching the ball. But Mastro quipped it might well result in more touches down the road for the Coug RBs.

Mastro was smiling on Monday. But it wasn't because his Cougar running backs piled up monster numbers in Washington State’s 59-21 win over Portland State in its home opener. They combined for 88 net rushing yards on 22 rushes, averaging 4.0 yards per carry.

Mastro’s eyes sparkle and his voice takes on a decided note of pride when he talks about his running backs. The Cougar passing game sets up the running game, and when the offense turned to its two freshmen starting running backs, they stepped up.

Mastro was equipped with a list of highlight plays to show the assemble alumni – including Gerard Wicks' power run for a touchdown and a Connor Halliday pass to Wicks on a wheel route.

But what really got Mastro excited was Halliday’s touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Calvin Green.

“This is a nice throw by Connor and a good play from one of our freshmen,” Mastro said as the sideline angle followed the ball.

But when the angle switched to the end zone view, Mastro directed attention to his to freshmen running backs -- Wicks and Jamal Morrow -- even though neither touched the ball. Instead, the room watched as Portland State’s defensive ends made bookend moves around both Cougar tackles.

And in perfect unison, the two Wazzu backs flattened both ends.

“That couldn’t be any more synchronized if they tried,” Mastro grinned. “We told Connor that if he wanted more blocking like that he’d better call a few more running plays.”

Mastro gets the irony. It comes with the job. He's the running backs coach in an offense that often throws the football 60-70 times per game. But the fortunate irony was the Cougar assistant addressed the Spokane Cougar Club luncheon just two days after his running backs' production were an essential part of a WSU victory.

Essential, but still a week late in Jim Mastro's mind.

“Against Nevada we should have run the ball down their throats and we didn’t,” Mastro said. “Face it, that defense wasn’t going to let us throw the ball.”

No college coach goes back farther with Mike Leach than Mastro, who was already on staff at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when Leach, in cut-off jeans, showed up and asked the offensive line coach if he could “help coach some football.”

And Mastro is as knowledgeable in the type of offense Leach run as anyone – spending 11 seasons helping head coach Chris Ault develop the Pistol offense at Nevada before helping Rick Neuheisel install the Pistol at UCLA for a season before joining his old friend in Pullman.

“This offense is all about execution,” he explained. “I’ve been fortunate to work with two of the most innovative offense in football, the Pistol and this one. The Pistol has 12 plays. This one has 17.

“I was asked to spend a couple days with a professional football team. They wanted to know how we do some of the things we do.”

When he sat down the offensive coaches, they brought out a thick binder.

“Is that your playbook,” Mastro asked.

No, he was told, that was their playbook for their game with the New England Patriots. As he went over film, he said, he’d ask why certain plays didn’t work. The pro coaches explained that different players blew or missed their assignments.

“There were at least 15 or 20 missed assignments in every game,” Mastro said. “I said, ‘Guys, I think I can see your problem.’”

Thick playbooks are fine, but it’s impossible for players to learn it all. And that, he said, is why these offenses keep it simple, relying on players to execute a small handful of plays perfectly each time.

That is the assignment for this week’s game against Oregon – a game that will be played in front of a sell-out crowd in Martin Stadium.

“Our offense we can score on anyone,” Mastro said. “But that’s our job. If it takes 70 points to win a game, you have to go out and score 70 points. The only state that matters in the end is wins and losses.”

Athletic Director Bill Moos explained that Oregon, which returns to Pullman for the first time in four years, will house its players at a Spokane hotel the night before the game.”

The former Oregon A.D. was happy to pass on some travel tips for the Ducks.

“I told them that traffic was not a problem,” he laughed. “It was an easy hour and 15 minutes to get there. No worries.”

But both Mastro and Moos were concerned with fans, especially students, arriving late, leaving early or not being in their seats to start the second half.

“Jason Gesser was talking on the radio about how important it is to the players to have that student section filled and loud,” Moos said. “The players feed off that energy.”

Mastro suggested it was a factor, one of many, contributing to a slow second-half start against Portland State.

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