When Washington State took the field for its first offensive series against Oregon, something was different. It wasn’t just a throwback to the end of last season, when Luke Falk and the Cougars were clicking and the defense was holding up its end of the bargain. It was what a Mike Leach team was supposed to look like — maybe even better than what it should look like.
There was a calm about Falk that was missing before. From the moment he walked onto the field for the first offensive possession, he looked at ease and in control, like he was holding a hammer and a scalpel, and it was time to go to work on an Oregon team that was ripe to get run over.
The hammer is the important part here, and Falk wasn’t the only one wielding it. Washington State ran the ball 40 times for 280 yards and six (two each by Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks) touchdowns. The word of the day was balance, and the Washington State offense had it everywhere: 40 runs to 48 passes; 11 different receivers catching passes; an equal distribution of carries and touchdowns to a three-headed rushing attack that feasted on the Ducks.
With Oregon conceding the box for most of the night, Falk and Leach were happy to run the ball straight at them, and found the most success getting straight down hill. Wicks, Morrow and Williams spent their evenings running (and jumping) over Oregon defenders in the second level.
Falk dropped back 53 times and was sacked twice. For most of the game, he was able to step back and calmly survey the scene, working the field and his reads from side to side. The offensive line protect the quarterback, and flattened the Oregon front seven in the run game, and simply played a more physical game than Oregon.
The same is true on the other side of the ball. There came a point, late in the third quarter, where it just looked like Oregon was tired of being hit and wanted to go home. Alex Grinch’s defense forced two turnovers, created confusion for large portions of the game, and was simply faster and more physical than an Oregon team that looked outmatched. And Grinch called a great game, attacking the mesh point on runs and finding ways to generate pressure.
What you saw was the whole show working in harmony. Grinch used confusion, and the speed of the line, to create pressure, which made things easier on the secondary. The front seven played disciplined, for the most part, and only let Royce Freeman run them over. That last part happens, and is an accepted part of recent Oregon-Washington State games.
The scalpel: A signature Air Raid performance. Falk threw 48 times, completing 36 of them to 11 different receivers for 371 and a touchdown with no turnovers. Oregon couldn’t get pressure, and Falk made them pay as receivers flashed open all over the field. After spending the first three weeks of the season looking confused while facing coverages that dropped everyone and still got pressure, Falk was comfortable and surgical.
There’s a play design element to this, too, and it became apparent early how Washington State was going to attack Oregon in the passing game. The Ducks dropped seven or eight into coverage, so the Cougars ran at them with vertical releases. Except the vertical releases were the distraction: As receivers were running at the defense, they were also running across it — combining bunched vertical routes and crossers that Oregon had no answer for.
When the Air Raid is working right, it creates an incredibly fun chess match on an individual level. It’s not a complicated offense, but it can quickly get confusing for a defense. Leach will run the same play out of different looks, the same route concepts in different spaces, to try and exploit the choices a secondary makes during a play. It forces defensive backs to make split-second decisions with receivers running at them in space. Make a few wrong decisions that the quarterback makes you pay for and fear is introduced. By then you’re already dead.
The Cougars exploited the Ducks early and often by simply running right at them. One wrong step, one moment of confusion, and Falk pounced. It didn’t matter where on the field it was or which receiver caused it to happen, Falk had complete command of what was going on in front of him.
You’re wondering where this was and what happened over the first three weeks of the season, and that’s fine. It’s naturally frustrating to see a team flounder through a non-conference schedule then demolish Oregon to open the Pac-12 slate. If they could just ... maybe ... why don’t they just do this before the season.
Which brings me back to where I’ve been sitting relatively comfortably since the beginning of the season. Everything about Saturday’s game played out according to a familiar Mike Leach Air Raid script. The efficient passing attack that creates space for playmakers and demands the quarterback understand where that space is going to be. The rushing attack that, while more extreme than normal on Saturday, can make a team pay for dropping defenders. The defense that flies around, creates a few turnovers, and clamps down just enough to let the offense do its work. And the special teams that ... yeah, that’s part of this, too. With the good comes the bad.
This continues to be a very on-brand team, especially if you believe that brand is something like the 2015 version of the Cougars. They start slow, frustratingly, then all of a sudden it clicks. And when the pieces come together it’s frightening to defend. It took a few seasons for the offense to actually get good on a whole, and seems to take a few games each season on a micro level, but when it all does you see something like what happened to Oregon.
There was a point in the fourth quarter when, hearing footsteps, Dakota Prukop rolled to his left. The footsteps were real, as they had been all night, but there was some room. Prukop hurried his throw and spun out of it as if expecting a hit. He had spent a good chunk of his night running away from a defensive line shooting gaps without hesitation.
Washington State controlled the game from the beginning on both sides of the ball. If you were to push aside the anxiety of being a fan of Cougar football, Saturday’s win over Oregon was comfortable from nearly start to finish. It was a better, faster, more physical team blowing out a team that had no answers for it.
That’s what it should look like. They had it in them the whole time.