Mike Leach and his Washington State squad head into LaVell Edwards Stadium Thursday night to face the BYU Cougars, and they do so as underdogs. It's a familiar situation with Leach, who has played the role throughout his coaching career.
Because WSU is the underdog, analysts may opine that the Crimson Cougs need to jump out to a quick start and avoid letting BYU build an early lead. This is generally sound, as many Wazzu fans remember countless times in the Paul Wulff years where the team was out of the game before halftime.
Unfortunately, there is one problem: Mike Leach's teams are notorious for their slow starts, and it isn't for lack of preparation. It is by design.
Now does that mean that Leach wants his teams to start slowly? Of course not. If the first call he makes ends up as a 75-yard TD pass to Marquess Wilson, I'm sure he would be overjoyed (and you can bet he'll call that play again).
Leach teams tend to start slowly because of the way he calls the game at the beginning. To steal a line Brian sent me when were discussing this over Gmail, it's a "feeling out process with no script." Basically, Leach is going to try formations with route combinations just to see how they work. They may not be the best call for the situation, but he just might stumble on something that will be useful later in the game.
It's his relatively simple "playbook" that allows for this to happen. As we've went over time and time again here, Leach will have a set of base formations that he practices into the ground. He'll also have a set of routes that the receivers work on until they can do them in their sleep. The routes don't change, with players cutting the same direction. If Rickey Galvin runs an "in route" on one side, he'll run an "out route" on the other.
The simplicity allows Leach to mix his routes within his formations easily, and that is what he is trying to figure out during the initial period.
When Leach does find those perfect combinations of defensive alignment and offensive play-calling, he will go to the well until it runs dry. He is a master of making adjustments on the fly and exploiting the holes in the opposing defense.
Perhaps the most famous example of a slow start situation is when Leach's Texas Tech team made the biggest comeback in bowl history at the 2006 Insight Bowl. Down 38-7 in the second-half to Minnesota, the Red Raiders scored 31 unanswered points to force overtime. They would eventually win 44-41.
There's no doubt a fast start would be a good thing in this game, it's best to tally as many points as possible when the WSU defense is charged with stopping the other team. However, if the offense sputters out to a few ugly drives, don't freak out. Leach is just playing a little rope-a-dope with the opponent while figuring out the holes in their game.