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Watch out, Oregon: WSU’s running game might finally have come alive

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The Cougars made a commitment to pounding the ball on the ground against a physically overmatched Idaho. The Ducks could be in for the same.

Idaho v Washington State
James Williams had a coming out party against the Vandals.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

I’m still marveling a little bit at WSU’s rushing performance against Idaho: 30 running back rushing attempts for 216 yards — 126 of them from James Williams. It was the most rushing yards in the Mike Leach era by a long shot, and certainly satiated those fans who are interminably convinced that Leach’s offense can only be successful in the long run with a greater incorporation of the run game.

I’m not in that camp; I’m with Leach in that running the ball for the sake of running the ball generally isn’t necessary, at least not if you’ve decided you’re going to run a “pure” Air Raid. But last game, it kind of felt like it was necessary, if only to back up Leach’s tough talk from the week before.

I think there’s also something to be said for figuring out the best way to be effective against your current opponent and not overthinking it.

I have this working theory that the Air Raid is now better for punching up than punching down — in other words, it might be better for leveling the playing field against a team that might be more talented than it is for dominating less talented teams.

I know that Leach routinely ran up the score with the Air Raid at Texas Tech, but that was a bit of a different offensive environment than what we’re in right now. Other than the blue chip programs, which feature freakishly fast full-sized linebackers, virtually every defense in the country is now running some kind of base nickel scheme to combat spread offenses. (And even some teams in the NFL.) You can thank Gary Patterson and his 4-2-5 for that.

This shift in philosophy and personnel deployment has prepared all teams to better defend in space than 10 or 15 years ago, but I think it does the most for the lesser talented teams, who once-upon-a-time were attempting to defend the occasional spread offense with conventional defenses featuring reasonably sized-but-slow dudes who were more concerned with being blown down the field by run-first offenses every other week. Because of that, I’d argue — again, 10-15 years ago — the athletically talented defense could make a shift to something unusual on any given week a lot better than the less-athletically talented defense.

Now we’re in an environment where practically everyone runs spread concepts — and I do mean almost everyone. Beyond that, Air Raid-specific passing concepts themselves have found their way into just about everyone’s playbook. You’re not going to surprise Portland State or Eastern Washington with your scheme anymore. (Heck, the Eagles ran the spread passing attack far better than the Cougs did.)

So, yeah — the scheme advantage spread teams no longer enjoy now mitigates some of the physical advantage in space because teams are better equipped to try and take away what you do. Beyond having more athletic outside linebacker/nickelback types in their personnel, they know how to flood a pattern that has four or five receivers with seven or eight defenders in a way that it will have a good chance of giving Luke Falk pause when he drops back.

Additionally, if you throw the ball 75 percent of the time against a less physically gifted team, you’re more or less eliminating your biggest physical advantage on 75 percent of plays: That massive offensive line.

Where does this leave you? In a place where you have to be willing to run the ball — and continue to run it until the defense gives you favorable numbers in the passing game once again.

That’s not necessarily a strategy for running up the score against, say, a team like Stanford, which has the athletes to both stand up in the run and pass game simultaneously. But against a team like Idaho? Yep! When the opposing defensive coordinator has purposed to gum up the passing game above all else (as Mike Breske clearly did), sometimes it’s OK to just grit your teeth and punch a physically overmatched opponent in the mouth by running it on 40 percent of the plays.

It might also be true against a team such as Oregon.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon
Jamal Morrow had a big game against the Ducks last season, making huge plays down the stretch of the comeback.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougs have a history of passing like the dickens against the Ducks under Mike Leach. Early on, that was an attempt to simply try and keep up with the Ducks as Leach rebuilt the program. The last couple of years, though, WSU has simply had success throwing it.

Will that change now that Brady Hoke is in charge of the Ducks defense? Hoke hasn’t been able to work miracles with these guys, who are again pretty awful. A particular weakness has been the Ducks’ run defense, which is terrible by both the advanced metrics and the traditional stats. I’d even wager to say that Oregon’s defense very well could be physically overmatched by WSU.

Could this be another game where we see WSU run it on something like 40 percent of the snaps? Last season, the WSU running backs gashed the Ducks to the tune of 176 yards on just 18 carries, and I think the Cougs now have a greater ability to run the ball than they ever have under Leach, thanks to the addition of Williams and the continued improvement of the line. Because of that, I think how much success they have running it against Oregon will depend mostly on whether they’re committed to running when the favorable matchup presents itself, even if success doesn’t present itself early.

Oregon likes to blitz a lot — nearly half of its defensive snaps if you believe this tweet — which means they’re sending run blitzes and there’s a chance for both high risk and high reward on any given play. Some early running plays could get stuffed and look bad. But if the Cougars commit to handing the ball to its talented running backs whenever the opportunity presents itself, they’ll eventually have success biting off chunks of yardage and forcing Oregon into favorable man-coverage matchups on the outside that the receivers should be able to win.

All that we’ll need after that is for Falk to be willing to throw the ball and let his receiver make a play.

This story has been updated to correct Oregon’s blitz percentage on defense.