This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2019 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.
The evolution of the Air Raid over the past 30 years has been a slow, steady one under Mike Leach. If you compare the offenses at Kentucky in the ‘90s to the offenses that have been in Pullman for the last several years, you will find that most of the pass concepts are unchanged. Over the decades, Leach has gone away from tight ends and has moved to four- and even five-wide sets in order to spread the field and stretch the defense. But the integral pieces of the Air Raid attack—Mesh, Sail, Cross, etc.—have remained the constants. Despite that consistency, we have seen a propensity to make marginal additions or schematic tweaks from year to year. Empty sets, the A-Frame, and pulling the tackle have all made their way into the Cougar offense as new wrinkles.
With all the minor changes, the one position that has seen the least change is, not surprisingly, the quarterback position. Leach has long recruited prototypical pocket passers. But with arguably the most athletic set of quarterbacks that Leach has ever had, might the time be ripe to unleash the legs of the quarterback position within the Air Raid?
The addition of Gage Gubrud to the Washington State Cougars roster—whether he plays or not—may signal that Leach is considering expanding the repertoire of the offense. It would make very little sense to bring in someone like Gubrud as a graduate transfer and then clip his wings by limiting his skill set. Anything that would go in schematically would be put in starting in April and worked on throughout the summer. Thus it’s in the playbook even if, say, Anthony Gordon—who is a pretty good athlete in his own right—is the starting quarterback.
Let’s take a look at three running plays for the quarterback that could potentially fit into the Air Raid and give opposing defensive coordinators even more headaches.
The Air Raid running game operates on a simple premise: leverage. You attack the defense where you have either a schematic advantage or a numbers advantage in the box. In the 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers) that the Air Raid typically employs, the vast majority of defenses will put five or six defenders in the box. If your five can block their five (or block their five and identify one you can ignore) it’s usually going to be a win for the offense.
Running the quarterback changes the math. In Ace or Trips, the running back becomes a blocker, making it, at worst, six on six in the box. Going to the empty set forces the defense to likely reduce their box defenders even further, leaving four or five in the box. Five offensive linemen against four or five box defenders is, once again, favorable math for the offense.
The clip below is from Baylor’s spread offense. Baylor’s offense is dissimilar to the Air Raid in a lot of ways, despite sharing concepts. In this case, the play is actually an RPO. Baylor reduces the box by motioning the running back wide. Based on the linebacker and nickelback’s reactions to the motioning, the quarterback either throws a swing to the back or follows the pulling guard into vacated space in the middle on the draw.
You can see the space, particularly to the offense’s left. The Cougs don’t RPO like this, but we see very similar defensive alignments. As much as we spin the magic bean, we’ll invite a healthy pass rush and this is one way to potentially beat an overaggressive defense and make those rushers hesitate for just a beat longer.
The beauty of the Air Raid is in its simplicity, and the Air Raid run game might be the hallmark of that concept. The pure Air Raid that Mike Leach runs essentially has two running plays: inside zone and outside zone. In both cases, the running back crosses the face of the quarterback and aims for a point away from where he originally lined up. Because there is no threat of a zone read look from the quarterback, defenses will generally align their strength calls away from the running back. A good counter to that is the speed option.
Assuming the running back is aligned to the QB’s right, the offensive line will use a blocking scheme that is very similar to inside zone left, leaving one backside defender—generally the overhang defender to that side—unblocked. The linebackers should read flow and scrape to offense’s left, further isolating the unblocked defender. The quarterback runs straight at that defender, forcing him to make a choice. And he’s always wrong.
TCU is actually playing Cover Zero with seven in the box, not something you see a whole lot of in major college football any more. But they have Oklahoma outnumbered, and they’re slanting towards the offense’s left, anticipating a zone run to that side based on formation and situation. Kyler Murray is definitely a zone read threat, so the backside defender is keying that. The other six defenders all get washed down in the blocking scheme, and Murray pitches off the overhang defender for, after a few broken tackles, a touchdown.
In the Air Raid, the speed option can be used as a quick hitter to catch a defense overpursuing to the zone side. You only have to hit it once or twice to help hold that backside defender, further opening up cutback lanes for the inside zone and slowing down the pass rush.
The Power play is all about getting more blockers on the play side than there are defenders. It’s an overload concept. By using the running back as a blocker, the offense adds an additional blocker to the play side. Run correctly, Power is a difficult play for a defense to handle.
The traditional Power has the fullback kicking out a defensive end and the backside guard pulling around to the play side and wrapping up through the hole to a second-level defender. The running back follows the guard up through the hole. In the typical four-wide sets of the Air Raid, the running back does the fullback’s job and the quarterback follows the guard. The clip below diagrams it perfectly, although Mississippi State pulls the center instead of the guard, which was probably a check made at the line based on the alignment of the defensive linemen.
Mississippi State also stretches this to the sideline a little more than is typical. In a more classic power, the running back would be coming at a more direct angle to LSU’s outside linebacker, and the quarterback would be aiming between him and the pulling lineman. It’s effective nonetheless, and it’s easy to see how, with an athletic quarterback, this could be integrated into the Cougar offense.
What are the odds that Coach Leach goes against type and throws in a few runs with the quarterback this season? Prior to a couple weeks ago, when Gubrud was the presumed starter, I would have been pretty confident in predicting that we’d see it quite a bit, possibly as often as four or five times a game.
Now, with Gordon as the starter? Certainly less confident, though I would not be surprised to see it thrown in once in a while when the situation is right—particularly the draw. As I said before, to have a quarterback like Gage Gubrud and not use all of his tools would have been a shame, so you have to imagine that those schemes are floating around somewhere towards the bottom corner of Mike Leach’s index card. I’m excited to find out what else the coaching staff has brought to the table in the offseason; it’s about that time.