This is the latest installment in our series of stories previewing the 2020 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.
On the first Sunday in January 1993, the Houston Oilers played the New York Jets in the regular season finale. This was their first home game since clinching the division in Pittsburgh two weeks prior, losing record-setting quarterback Warren Moon to broken ribs in the process.
Backup Oiler QB Cody Carlson trotted the offense out to their own 17-yard line with a little less than 10 minutes left in the first half. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride called a masterful 16-play, 8-minute march that had the Jets – and their defensive coordinator Pete Carroll – completely flummoxed. The drive was capped by TD to wide receiver Ernest Givens on a post, from a Trips set running wheel to the boundary. The Jets only had 10 men on the field.
1 minute and 53 seconds of game time later, Gilbride’s defensive coordinator punched him in the face.
Gilbride and the Oilers were one of the first to bring Tiger Ellison’s Run and Shoot offense into the NFL. It had percolated in the college ranks at Portland State with Mouse Davis (’74-’80), South Carolina (’86-’88), and Houston (’88-’92) for around a decade and immediately became one of the most productive offenses in the NFL. In that 1990 season, Warren Moon threw for over 4,000 yards with 33 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. With Gilbride, the Oilers never finished outside the top 5 in scoring.
Gilbride and Moon again had the Oilers rolling in 1992. They went on an 11-game win streak to close the season and faced a Jets team that was fighting to make the playoffs.
About a minute after they kicked off to the Jets following their 16-play scoring drive, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan engineered a sack-fumble of quarterback Boomer Esiason. The Oilers got the ball back on their own 33-yard line with less than a minute to go in the half and a two touchdown lead.
Gilbride immediately calls for a bomb to Tony Jones, which just misses. The next play, Carlson again drops back but the left tackle gets whipped inside by the defensive end, who punches the ball loose and recovers for the Jets.
Nothing eventful happened for the Jets after that turnover – or the rest of the game for that matter — but the Oilers had themselves a kerfuffle.
Buddy Ryan thought the offense should sit on their lead and take it into half. Kevin Gilbride wanted points.
The Shoot has always been an aggressive offense. It is in the DNA of the coaches that developed it and is embodied by new Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich too.
*Buddy Ryan, when asked about the incident a few days later said, “Kevin Gilbride will be selling insurance in a few years”. Gilbride went on to coach another 20 seasons and won two Super Bowls with the Giants.
When the Cougs brought in Coach Rolovich, they committed to an offensive system for their second consecutive head coaching hire. This is particularly notable for how surprisingly rare it is in a college football landscape trending toward “CEO” types, and former defensive coordinators, that can swap out en vogue offensive staffs as needed.
Committing to an offensive system means you accept certain realities that come with being specialized. First, that it will take time to build a roster that can run that system and second, whatever offense comes next will need time to completely change the roster to fit what they need. For Wazzu, swapping out the Air Raid for the Run and Shoot is less a transformation and more a transition — and a throwback of sorts to Mike Price’s single-back offense he popularized in the mid-90s.
Both the Air Raid and Shoot are spread passing-attack offenses with similar formations and can have very similar looking patterns but they have fundamentally different approaches to their execution
The Air Raid by design challenges a defense horizontally. The central premise is that a defense cannot defend all 53 yards in the width of a football field on any given play. Someone will be open and it’s on the QB to locate that person. Emphasis is on execution and playing fast.
Air Raid plays are the ‘one size fits all’ cap that is practically agnostic toward defensive coverage. It is a progression offense. If the first read wasn’t open, move to the next one, then on down the line because somebody was going to be open.
Shoot plays are a real-time reaction to what a specific defense is doing, becoming the right play for the situation. Both the quarterback and the receivers identify specific coverages after the snap and many of the routes in the offense have multiple options built into them.
Coach Mike Leach once criticized Connor Halliday for playing the position with a little too much “streetball”, meaning improvisation. The Shoot is designed to be organized streetball, which favors mobile and creative quarterbacks, and probably gave true freshman starter Jayden de Laura a little bit of an edge in the quarterback competition.
The Cougs were consistently one of the most efficient and prolific offenses in college football under Mike Leach but never truly explosive. Connor Halliday and Anthony Gordon worked the ball downfield more than most of their fellow Air Raid quarterbacks at Wazzu, still the Cougar offense thrived in that intermediate range and the quick game.
The Shoot will attack vertically. A lot. It’s an aggressive and opportunistic counterpuncher of an offense that always looks for knockouts.
Here’s a fun example of that from Hawai’i last year against Oregon State.
The Rainbow Warriors bring a kick out of the endzone to the Beavs’ 35-yard line. Facing 2nd-and-5, Oregon State loads 6 in the box and shows Cover 4 to the trips side of the field. The safety is initially cheating off his hash and the boundary corner is in press coverage. This immediately triggers a deep shot to the isolated wide receiver on the boundary for a touchdown.
While short down-and-distance is always a great opportunity for a deep shot, the Shoot will take it anytime they get it. This puts defending the vertical at the forefront of a defense’s mind simply by having it always be present. To always be willing to go deep. And the Cougs’ have a litany of fast and talented receivers.
This means inside receivers will be much more involved in the vertical passing game, unlike how we’ve watched them become underutilized at the H position in the Air Raid over the years. Whenever there’s leverage to drive a route deep, the Shoot inside receivers can take it. That flexibility is built into the offense, which is a little different than the more strict routes of the Air Raid, designed to create space as a concept rather than adjust to space as an individual route.
Defenses won’t be able to “shell” this offense by dropping safeties and corners back and flooding underneath zones. Shoot passing concepts are geared toward eating that strategy alive…not to mention the increased running threat, which we will definitely touch on another time.
A great example of this difference between Shoot and Air Raid is in Y-Cross.
Brandon Arconado lead the Cougs in receiving last year and there’s a good chance 75% or more of his yardage came on this one play. River Cracraft made hay doing the exact same thing before him. Coug fans have watched Y-Cross become nearly an automatic move-the-chains route over the years. Every opponent on the field and fan in the stands knew Wazzu would run this play on third down and still no one could defend it.
The Cross from Y (inside receiver to the right) was backdoored by a post from Z that would sit in open areas underneath the zone coverage. X (outside receiver to the left) had essentially a run-off route that barely got looked at and H ran a similarly disregarded option route that served its purpose to hold a linebacker underneath.
Now consider a Run and Shoot functional comparable, Streak.
*Note* Streak is more equivalent to Verts in the base routes but we can look at the functionality of how it attacks the middle of the field here, like Cross.
When put into the same formation, this play has a lot of the same characteristics. The outside receivers are pushing vertical with options to break off a bench (right) or post (left) that don’t require a tag on the playcall.
The inside receiver to the left now has an insane amount of freedom. If the flat defender drops too deep, he can break outside or inside, crossing their face. If the safety bails to the middle of the field or jumps the boundary, he can push up the seam, and if that safety mirrors him up the hash he can sit in a hole in front of him.
The inside receiver to the right still has all the options of Y-Cross available to him, if he wants, plus a vertical up the seam if the safeties roll coverage to take away the middle of the field.
That series of if/thens might be a little much on the first read through but it essentially covers an adaptation to any kind of coverage the defense could throw at them. The options here are more than just sitting in an open area — the receivers and the quarterback are simultaneously reading coverage on the fly and attacking the weakest spots of a defense.
The easiest first step to take in understanding this offense is understanding MOFO.
Is the Middle Of the Field Open (MOFO) or closed (MOFC)?
The reads for the players in the offense are a little more complicated than that but it’s a solid starting point for fans watching a broadcast. Looking at the defensive alignment before the snap; two high safeties mean the middle of the field is open. A single high safety means the middle of the field is closed.
Or the middle field read could open based on coverage during the play, if a safety rolls to the flat for instance. That MOFO or MOFC read will dictate a lot of what the receivers do on any given play. When it opens, expect someone to dart in there from somewhere.
Welcome to Schrodinger’s Season. Wazzu has a new head coach with a new offense, big question marks all over the defense, and a true freshman starting at quarterback. Coug fans should feel awesome about another season with Max Borghi, especially in an offense that will highlight his ability, and really confident about the receivers and offensive line.
Everything else is a little bit of a mystery until we open that box in Corvallis on Saturday and see what kind of cat is in there.
Cougar Football Saturday is BACK.