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Coach’s Corner: Ruminations on Max Borghi

And why “more carries” isn’t the answer

NCAA Football: Utah State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the angst coming off the Washington State Cougars’ extremely disappointing loss to Utah State on Saturday night revolved around the perceived lack of carries for Max Borghi. As he is the most talented offensive player on the roster, it makes logical sense to want him to carry more of the load when the offense doesn’t perform well as a unit. But the formula is not as simple as "more Max ball = more points = more win game". Borghi, as talented as he is, is still a cog in the machine that is the offense. An important cog, certainly, but just as reliant on the other pieces as everybody else.

Most significantly, Max relies on the five big boys in front of him. You can have the greatest skill position players in the world, but if the five offensive linemen aren't able to block the guys in front of them, your offense is going to struggle. On Saturday night, we saw an offensive line that struggled to control the line of scrimmage at times, often allowing penetration into the offensive backfield — the death of any running game. It’s not our focus today, but pass protection wasn’t always great either, with both Jarrett Guarantano and Jayden de Laura often releasing pressure by scrambling out of the pocket.

We’re going to take a look at all 11 of Max Borghi’s carries from Saturday night and break down what went right or wrong — spoiler alert, mostly the latter — and that will show us that there are bigger issues that giving Max the ball more often likely won’t solve.

2x2 27 Counter Iso

For years we heard all about how the Air Raid looks at the numbers in the box and based on that, will potentially check to a running play. The key word was always leverage. The first play from Saturday night was a really good example of how leverage works. Pre-snap, Utah State has seven in the box, which seems not great when you have only five linemen. But WSU uses a couple wrinkles to get leverage on the defense. First, we really only care about the four defenders head up and left of center. The other three are on the backside of the play and are going to get caught in the wash by design. So it’s a matter of getting four on four. We start with three (left tackle, guard, center) on that side. Cade Beresford, the right guard, is going to pull, but because of Utah State’s defensive tackle being in a 2-i technique, the center is forced to block back, so that’s a wash. But the alignment of the safety over Travell Harris allows us to use him as our extra blocker. That gives us four on four.

Utah State ends up throwing a zone blitz at WSU on this play. The original design of the play may have been for Harris to block down on the linebacker and create more of a trap angle on the defensive end for Beresford. But because the end bails out into coverage, that draws Harris’ block, leaving the linebacker for the pulling guard. Liam Ryan (LT) and Jarrett Kingston (LG) are responsible for the defensive tackle and middle linebacker on a combo block, and both do reasonably well. Brian Greene (C) doesn’t get beat across his face which is really his only job, and Abraham Lucas (RT) doesn’t really have anybody to block because of the zone blitz.

Decent start. Borghi isn’t touched until he’s already gained 6 or 7 yards. It gets worse.

3x1 23 Zone Read

This is either Max being greedy or Guarantano misreading the play. It looks to me like Guarantano is trying to pull it, so I’m leaning towards this being Max’s mistake. The offensive line does reasonably ok here considering this was a pull read on the unblocked defender. Except for Kingston, who stumbles a bit coming off the double team and whiffs. I wouldn’t have hated a pin-and-pull for him and Greene. The angle looks better. But regardless, they’re body for body in the box, and the outside linebacker walked up at the bottom of the screen is the overhang defender. If Guarantano is able to pull this, there’s nobody left down at the bottom of the screen before the free safety.

2x2 20 Draw

I like nothing about this. I don’t like that they broke the huddle at 13 seconds, leaving no time to check out. I don’ t like that they didn’t check out. I don’t like that the only OL to get out of his pass set and get into the draw block is Lucas, and he even whiffs on the LB. I don’t like Beresford being put on skates. I don’t like that Max never had a chance here.

3x1 28 Counter Iso

I don’t know exactly what this is supposed to be, but I’m guessing it’s the counter iso from the first play, just run with the tackle pulling because of the defensive front’s alignment. But, again, it’s a mess. Beresford gets beat like a drum, and on the back side, Kingston fails to recognize the blitzing linebacker, who chases Borghi down. Konner Gomness is in at center at this point, and you can see him telling Kingston to slip to backer. Just a blown assignment.

3x1 27 Counter Iso

It turns into more of a trap because of the penetration by 42 on the end, but this one is actually blocked pretty well. We just get a little unlucky with the corner blitz coming from the short side of the field. Gomness misses his block, but it’s tough to block back on a 2-i that is slanting away from you. This probably goes for quite a bit if the corner doesn’t catch Borghi from behind.

2x2 24 Zone Read

On the one hand, it’s hard to fault de Laura here; the read he gets is definitely a give read, with the read defensive end backing out into a zone blitz look. On the other hand, I would 100% take my chances with de Laura one on one in space against a Mountain West defensive end that is bailing out. Especially if Joey Hobert recognizes that he’s pulled it and throws a block for him. The defensive alignment makes this tough for the offensive line too, with the alignment of the linebackers almost guaranteeing that we don’t have a body for one of them. The general principle of zone blocking is “Head up, Play side, Double to backer.” Play side in this case is to the right, which means Liam Ryan has to go down (play side) to 95, and Gomness has to step towards 92 (also play side, and who was living in our backfield most of the night). That leaves both linebackers for Kingston. That is not leverage. He picks up the blitzer because it’s the first thing that shows, but that leaves nothing for 3, who is USU’s best all-around defender. Also doesn’t help that Gomness can’t get a seal on the looping backside defensive end.

2x2 27 Counter Iso

The good one! Seems like this is going to be the go-to running play this year as often as they ran it on Saturday night. Kingston and Ryan handle the stunt on the playside decently, and Kingston slips off enough to force 3 under his block, which allows Borghi to outrun him once he gets around Beresford’s pull. Borghi’s speed makes a couple of ok blocks work a lot better. I think that’s De’Zhaun Stribling that gets the seal on the corner to give Max the sideline; nice job, rook.

3x1 28 Zone

Two good ones in a row! This was probably the best blocked run play of the night. Lucas’s reach on the outside linebacker is the key, giving Borghi the edge. Beresford stones the blitz, and Gomness handles the 3-tech slanting to him. If I’m picking nits, I’d like to see Kingston just release to 33 once he realizes 95 is slanting away from the play. He hesitates, which is probably what he’s taught to do in terms of protecting the gap, but a faster linebacker scrapes to Borghi and costs us a few yards there.

2x2 27 Counter Iso

Again, not too bad here for the most part. Five yards is five yards. Beresford doesn't seal his kick out block very well, which allows the defender to slip off and squeeze the hole pretty well, not giving Max a whole lot of room to operate and slowing him down. Travell Harris has the best block on this play considering the guy he blocks outweighs him by a good 30-40 pounds. He's the best blocking wide receiver on the team, without question.

Diamond 23 Zone Read

......... yikes. Enough has been said about this. I will say though, in Cammon Cooper’s defense, this was not a pull read.

Diamond 23 Zone Read

And neither was this BUT LOOK AT DEON OH MY GOD. BLARGH. I would have run it back.

Let’s be realistic. This is the Run and Shoot. If you’re expecting Max to get 25 carries a game, you would be well advised to not hold your breath. That’s not how the offense is designed to operate. In fact, proportionally, Borghi got the amount of touches/targets Saturday night that we should expect in any given game—about 25%. The problem mostly lies in the fact that WSU only ran about 60 offensive plays. The offense is too plodding and stilted. An easy way to increase Max’s impact? Speed up the tempo. If we’re running 80 plays instead of 60, that’s about 5 more touches for Max just in the design of the offense, and without having to force him the ball.

Moreover, if the offensive line is struggling to open up holes, there’s not much sense in just turning around and handing the ball to Borghi just to watch him get swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage. I’m not saying abandon the run completely, of course. Instead, you have to find other ways to get the ball in Max’s hands. The shovel screen is good for that. How about a slip screen? Involve the back in the passing game. A little speed option to get him on the edge wouldn’t hurt either. Nick Rolovich, Brian Smith, et al simply have to be a bit more creative.

Frankly, this week, we shouldn’t see much of Max Borghi. Give him five carries, make sure he gets in the end zone once, then let Deon McIntosh and Nakia Watson have some fun. There are bigger fish further downstream. But that is also incumbent on the offensive line making a leap. This is a unit that was always prioritized under Mike Leach, so there is talent there. The six guys who played are all capable of performing at this level. It’s a matter of working as a cohesive unit and communicating. The two guards, in particular, were the weak links against Utah State, but both showed flashes of their ability. If the five hogmollies can iron out their wrinkles, then we’ll start to see Max get untracked.

Generally speaking, you should see the greatest improvement from a team between game one and game two. That has to be the case for the Cougs or this season will get very unfun in a hurry.