After each WSU season under Mike Leach, we have been compiling stats and applying metrics former Leach Offensive Coordinator Dana Holgorsen (now head coach at West Virginia) once used to evaluate production at the skill positions. Coach Leach has been fairly coy when asked about what metrics his current staff thinks are important, typically electing to skirt the question and talk about how tracking Time of Possession is meaningless.*
*He's right, it's meaningless
We should be well familiar with Mike Leach's definition of balance, where it's more important to look at the distribution of touches to your skill position players than a ratio of how many times you call a running play...which is such a deviation from the traditional concept that talking heads still have a problem accepting it.
Distribution is characterized by three major categories; touches, yards, and touchdowns. If you're on the fence about this analysis, check out the 2014 Production link above and the estimations we were able to make using it last spring.
Below are the position designations in the standard Ace formation. Here's the depth chart for the game against Stanford, and the listing for contributors on the season are as follows;
X - Dom Williams, Kyrin Priester
H - Robert Lewis, Tyler Baker, Kyle Sweet
F - Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow, Keith Harrington
Y - River Cracraft, John Thompson
Z - Gabe Marks, Tavares Martin Jr., Dan Lilienthal
Let's start with the F (running back) position. Jamal Morrow, Keith Harrington, and Gerard Wicks have been stellar so far this season. The run game has nearly doubled it's efficiency from last year and each back is averaging over five yards per carry. The ground attack has improved so dramatically, analysts are frequently heard during a broadcast detailing how "Mike Leach toned it down and calls more running plays" or "realized the run game is important." Those are both myths.
The running back has always been an essential position in this offense, probably the most crucial element of the whole thing. They need to be effective when their number's called, play a key role in pass protection and usually lead the team (as a position) in receptions. The triumvirate Wazzu has at F massively upgraded that first part.
The Cougs are averaging just over a single carry more than last season, but are generating close to 45 more yards on the ground per game. Keith Harrington and Jamal Morrow, especially in the last couple conference games, have had huge hand in that. Wicks does the dirty work well. He's a solid downhill runner that's a load to handle at the goal line.
With Harrington and Morrow, we get a little more razzle dazzle. Both of them have a highlight yard average over six, which means on average, if they get to five yards they'll turn it into 11. And both are getting at least five yards on over 50 pct of their carries. These guys have been special so far this season, and it's probably no coincidence that the only games where the running back position broke a hundred on the ground at WSU under Coach Leach were the past three conference wins.
We don't yet have the play by play data to break out what down & distance F carries are coming on, but hypothesized last spring that being able to confidently run at 3rd-and-4 would be a major boon to this offense. And it seems like that's what's happening. Jason Gesser made similar comments about an increased confidence in checking to the run play. Luke Falk has been outstanding at not just knowing when to run, but where. He's put the offense in the right play, most of the time throughout conference play.
The Cougs are ranked 6th nationally in rushing success rate and 13th in opportunity rate. You can see what those terms mean here. Whenever they do run, they are highly effective at it.
Falk -- who's on pace for a record-setting season -- has been spreading the ball out extremely well. Touches are about even at three wide receiver positions and F is getting good work, averaging 6.5 yards every time they touch the ball.
[Editor's note: sack yardage is not counted in this summation]
So how does this compare to last season?
First thing that jumps out is "oh yeah, Vince Mayle was pretty awesome last year", he averaged 177 yards on just over 12 touches per game at X, which was insane. Swing those excessive targets over to Gabe Marks at Z, and move a few Y touches to F -- which were predominantly standard down 3rd down targets* -- and you get this year's distribution.
*Cracraft was targeted a team high 32 times on third down last season
Along with their extra rush attempt, F is getting two additional receptions per game this season over last year, mostly by way of a very potent screen game. The backs have upped their yards per reception to 6.5, around a yard more than in 2014. Combine that with the increased yards per carry and you see the per game production vault about 50 yards.
Overall, touches are fairly similar to last season, despite running about five fewer plays per game (79.1 this year versus 84.5 last year). That's what a increase in completion percentage can do for you (71 pct this year versus 66 pct last year). And the scoring offense is a little over a field goal better, averaging 35 points per game.
[Editor's note No. 2: Connor Halliday was on pace to throw for 5,809 yards and 48 TDs before his injury last year...that offense was pretty explosive through the air, and buoyed statistically by that bonkers Cal game]
The Cougar Air Raid is humming right now. The past couple years has been very reliant on outside receiver production -- probably more than you'd like from a "balance" standpoint -- but if you have a talent like Mayle, you need to get him involved as much as possible. Texas Tech had a very similar skewed distribution with Michael Crabtree at Z. This season, success is coming because every spot on the field is contributing.
The starting receivers are all averaging over 10 yards per reception, and most positions are down from last year. But we knew that this team wasn't playing over the top very often early in the season, and nine receivers have double-digit receptions.
Luke Falk is spreading it around, and defenses are having a hard time stopping four extremely productive positions on the field.