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Interactive Graphic: Could key to 2018 lie in return of WSU’s running game?

The Cougs have been at their offensive best under Leach when they could run the ball effectively.

This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2018 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.

College football coaches have a reputation of being creatures of habit. Be it 6 a.m. walks through lentil fields or drinking milk while eating steak, it’s no surprise that their discipline outside of football would also apply to their jobs as plays callers. Players often begin to resemble their coaches as they get immersed in the discipline and identity that the coaching staff is trying to put in place. There is already chatter of Gardner Minshew beginning to sound like Leach only a few weeks into his time at WSU.

Discipline breeds consistency, and one thing that has always intrigued me about college football is looking for year to year changes in a team’s approach or at least any noticeable changes to their statistical output to see where or if they’re stepping out of whatever mode or ethos their staff is focused on. Mike Leach was rumored to have famously once said, “I score points, son,” so I wanted to delve into how the Cougs have been scoring touchdowns to see if there have been any noticeable shifts or changes in the last few seasons.

2016 was a year of breakthrough for the WSU offense; they jumped from 31.5 points a game to 38. Not quite the 43 a game Leach’s Red Raiders averaged in his last two seasons in Lubbock, but a great improvement. The first thing that jumped out to me when taking a peek at 2016 were the rushing touchdowns. WSU went from 8 touchdowns on the ground in 2015 to 23 in 2016, led by Gerard Wicks with 11. The Cougs rushed for over 500 more yards in 2016 vs 2015 and averaged over 4 yards a carry (including sack yardage).

WSU hasn’t been particularly explosive in the Leach era — this version of the Air Raid has hung its hat on efficiency and death by a thousand cuts. That led me to looking at how Leach has approached the red zone in particular. When it came time to go for 6 points, 2016 was a huge outlier for the Cougs in how much they handed the ball off.

This chart looks at what % of touchdowns in the red zone are via the pass or via the run. It is filtered to 2015-2017. If you hover over a logo you’ll see that the Cougs had 71 red zone trips in 2016 vs about 54 in 2015 and 2017. Of all their touchdowns scored in the red zone in 2016, WSU scored via the run 45% of the time, putting them on par with 2017 Wisconsin. WSU also scored 67 total touchdowns and 49 in the red zone in 2016 vs 48 total in 2017 and 31 in the red zone.

If you’re on mobile I recommend turning your phone horizontal, and if you want to open the chart in a new tab and return to the post, click here.

It’s clear to me that Leach knew he had something special in his running back trio, but in particular with Wicks and his tank-like running style near the goal line. Understanding how WSU scored led me to wondering if their overall play calling changed once they entered the red zone. Were all of those touchdowns the result of a greater commitment to the run game in general or more WSU’s methodical style putting them in short and goal related situations?

The below chart looks at what % of a team’s plays were passing or running before they hit the red zone and in it. The goal is to see if a team’s philosophy stays consistent no matter where they’re at on the field, or if they start to emphasize one play type over the other. The left side compares passing and the right side rushing.

The 2016 Cougs didn’t change their approach to running in the red zone as drastically as other teams in the Pac-12. Arizona ran 16% more often in the red zone and Arizona State 22% more often, but the 2016 Cougs ran the ball on 43% of their play calls in the red zone, good for about 10% more often vs when they were outside the 20. Their overall play calling before the red zone in 2017 returned to the same percentage as 2015 (about 28%), and running the ball 33% of the time in 2016 doesn’t really seem like that big of a philosophical shift. (Random side note: The only Pac-12 team in 2017 to run the ball less in the red zone than before it were the Stanford Cardinal. Although the difference was almost nothing, still kind of surprising.)

If you’re on mobile I recommend turning your phone horizontal, and if you want to open the chart in a new tab and return to the post, click here.

The reduction in running the ball could be from the changeover of The Wizard, Riley Sorenson, at center to Fred Mauigoa; or it could have been the ability for Eduardo Middleton to get a push vs that of B.J. Salmonson. With 11 moving pieces, it’s hard to pin it on any 1 player or thing. However, last year with Wicks injured or buried behind Jamal Morrow and James Williams, the Cougs didn’t seem to have that power option at running back. Wicks was listed at 5-foot-11 and 204 lbs, while incoming freshman Max Borghi stands 5-foot-10 but weighs 194, so I think it’d be unfair to put the same workload or goal line expectation on Borghi. However, Theo Lawson of The Spokesman-Review has mentioned Borghi’s heavy, churning running style more than once. Perhaps he could be a go to in short yardage if Williams is needing a breather.

The Cougs were very turnover prone last year, throwing 20 interceptions. Mark Sandritter already noted how important the running backs will be in 2018 and I agree. It will be interesting to see if Leach will encourage his inexperienced QB’s to rely more on the running game, especially in pressure situations near the goal line. There’s no doubt that Williams, Harrington and Borghi will be involved in the offense to a great deal, but I think a more productive ground attack near the goal line will hopefully return WSU to their high flying ways of 2016 and keep the Cougs on the path to 6 (and hopefully more) wins.

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