After leading the University of the Incarnate Word for four highly successful seasons, Eric Morris is returning to the Palouse to take over as the Offensive Coordinator for the Washington State Cougars. Morris elevated the San Antonio college’s young football program in rapid fashion, including winning its first-ever playoff game. It can’t be understated how quickly Morris improved things at UIW. The program got started in 2009 joining the Division II Lone Star Conference after one year as an independent, then transitioned to FCS in 2013.
Morris took over in 2018 after the Larry Kennan-led Cardinals suffered through a 1-10 2017 campaign. Under their now former head coach, the Cardinals turned in a 6-5 overall record, including a 6-2 mark in the Southland conference, which was good enough for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs. The Cardinals would return to the top of the Southland in 2021 with a 9-2 overall record. They defeated Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the playoffs before falling a yard short against #1 Sam Houston State in the second round.
A wide receiver at Texas Tech and an assistant coach at WSU under Mike Leach, Eric Morris has Air Raid bona fides. But he has also spent time under current Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and influences from him and other Air Raid branches can be seen in the offense he ran at Incarnate Word. Thus, the offense that Morris will bring to the Palouse is a blend of Air Raid concepts, RPO, and “traditional” spread concepts. It will be an offense unique to Washington State.
We’ll break down some of the new concepts, take a look at how Morris blends Air Raid with the other elements, and then look at the Air Raid staples he’ll bring along with the new stuff.
Before we jump in, here’s a look at the cumulative statistics for UIW in 2021. Lots of positives all over that sheet. A few things jump out at me.
- The passing yardage to rushing yardage ratio is about 3:1, mirroring the 2016 version of the Air Raid. I don’t anticipate that close of a ratio in 2022 considering how thin we are looking at the running back slot. (Also it’s easier to commit to a more run-dependent scheme when you’re ahead in games and uhhh....... yeah.)
- 360 rushing attempts is right around what we had this year—though that’s in 13 games for UIW.
- 48 passing touchdowns! Anthony Gordon approves!
- On 62 trips into the red zone, UIW came away with points on 48, and found the end zone 45 times. 3 out of 4 trips yielding points seems less than ideal. In fact, the 77.4% rate would rank 105th in FBS, alongside such offensive juggernauts as Illinois and Vanderbilt.
We’ll start with a few things that are specific to Morris’ version of the Air Raid. Because of the higher emphasis on rushing attempts and the use of formations that lend themselves to running the ball more often, we’ll see a good amount of RPO concepts and an equivalent use of true play action.
AIR RAID RPO
The RPO has been covered fairly extensively in this space over the past five years, and we’ve seen quite a few different versions of it throughout that time. Virtually every team, including WSU the past two seasons, runs some sort of RPO package. Mike Leach, being Mike Leach, does not and did not. So we haven’t seen Air Raid blended with RPO for Washington State’s offense. But for Eric Morris’ offense, it is a key component.
The read defender is the linebacker towards the bottom of the screen, wearing number 30. He steps up to play the run, so the quarterback pulls it and flips it out to the Y running a quick out. It’s a very quick read and a bit of a difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback to make, as he’s forced to rip his front shoulder around 180 degrees in the opposite direction that he’s going to throw. But it’s not a long throw either, and a guy with the arm strength of de Laura should have no problem completing this in rhythm.
A random thing of note: The H doesn’t run a route. He just straight up goes to block the safety. Perfectly legal, as the ball is thrown basically right at the line of scrimmage. We saw some of this with Leach, particularly on wheel routes and shoot routes out of the backfield, but Morris’ receivers do this a lot more often, it seems like.
H-Stick paired with inside zone to the bottom of the screen. The receivers on the run’s play side are a pretty good indicator that this is a true RPO, as they’re going to their blocking assignments instead of running a route. The linebacker (#35) to the top of the screen freezes on the run just long enough to give Cameron Ward, UIW’s QB (and potentially WSU’s QB in the future) the necessary window to hit the Stick route.
That’s an honest-to-goodness tight end! The mythical beast has been found! Jim Walden might have to change his pants! UIW motions from what is basically Ace with the in-line tight end to a trips formation, fakes the swing pass and then floods the Bearkat zone to offense’s right. Crossers are tough to cover in the end zone, and there are about 17 crossers on this play. The non-Air Raid count on this play is three. Tight end, flood concept, rolling the quarterback out of the pocket.
THERE ARE LESS THAN THREE RECEIVERS IN THIS FORMATION AND IT’S GIVING ME ANXIETY
A tight end AND an H-back? On the field at the same time? IS THAT ALLOWED? For all that, this is just a simple inside zone play with a bubble check for a possible RPO. It should have only gone for about three or four yards were it not for the atrociously bad run fit by #4 for Sam Houston State. He badly overruns the blast gap and there’s no one left between 5 and the goal line.
Oh thank god, they throw out of it. I could feel the allergic reaction building. This is just basic play-action fare. Suck the safeties up with a run-first formation, run a deep post over the top one-on-one against a corner who thought he would have inside help.
Old Reliable, even though it gets blown up all to hell in this case. Morris seems to have adopted the variation of Mesh that has a third receiver sit in the void left between the meshers. He’ll also run it out of a whole slew of different formations, as well as utilizing different motions to get free releases and rubs for the meshers.
A little bit of a tweak on a route combination that we saw some of under Leach. Normally we’d see a square in at about 5 from the Z, and some combination of post/slant and corner from the two slots. This has more of a Smash look (Hitch/Corner) with the middle slot running a slant to clear the flat defender. The Y makes a ridiculous catch here. He reminds a lot of the undersized, scrappy, gritty slot receivers we seemed to have every year under Leach. You know, like John Thompson or Ricky Galvin.
This has become one of my favorite route concepts. Run smash a bunch to get those safeties bailing hard to the corner, then slip the hitch into the middle of the field to exploit the gap. The fact that UIW does it in a compressed field space in the red zone is pretty impressive. Ward makes a nice throw into a bit of a tight window.
If this route combination rings some bells, it should. Here’s Dezmon Patmon outrunning the entire state of New Mexico on this route in 2019:
And here’s Marquess Wilson beating Eastern Washington with it way back in 2012:
It seemed like Leach would call this once every game and 60% of the time it worked every time. Showing the outside screen to the X-receiver, then releasing the H up the sideline. My favorite part of this gif is that if you listen closely you can hear the safety saying “Oh S%#@” when he realizes 83 is past him.
There will be a lot about the new offense that will strike some familiar notes for the Air Raid enthusiasts within the Washington State fan base. There will also be enough that is new that it should give the offense quite a bit more variation. Transfer portal shenanigans and recruiting will, as always, determine much of the direction of the offense going forward, but there is a lot to be excited about on the Palouse as the Cougs will still look to put forward an offense that is going to sling the ball all over the yard.