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WSU run game powered big 2016 improvement in scoring

The difference is remarkable when you visualize it with our interactive chart.

Washington v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

We’ve all probably rolled our eyes a few times at the lack of understanding about the Air Raid when national narratives from TV commentators or columnists seem to boil down to “just run the ball more!”

While just blindly running the ball more wouldn’t have solved this issue, the Cougs, perhaps more than I’d like to admit, may have deserved some of the shade getting thrown their way. Before last season, the only Mike Leach-coached Cougs to crack double digits in total rushing touchdowns (with 10) was the 2013 team.

One of the biggest complaints on this front (cue Rod Gilmore) is how it becomes soooooooo hard to score in the red zone unless you can run the ball. From 2013 to 2015, the Cougs had just 22 total red zone rushing TDs, finishing below 100th nationally in that stat each year. The 2015 team was tied with Tulane for 119th in red zone rushing touchdowns with seven.

However, last year’s Cougs jumped all the way to 36th in red zone rushing touchdowns, punching it in an 22 times — reminder: that’s the same number of red zone rushing TDs in the previous three years combined — and ended up tied with Alabama in the category (WE WANT BAMA, wait, maybe not, no definitely not).

A big increase in a stat doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t make your team harder to defend, so the reason that jump in red zone rushing production is particularly exciting is that it wasn’t at the expense of scoring via the pass: WSU threw 29 touchdowns in 2015 in the red zone (first in the nation) and still threw 27 in 2016 (second). All told, WSU’s 50 red zone touchdowns finished behind only Clemson and Navy in 2016 (they each had 55).

The below chart visualizes for you what percent of red zone touchdowns are via the pass or run for 2015 and 2016. In 2015, WSU scored only 19 percent of its touchdowns in the red zone on the ground, but in 2016, that jumped to 44.9 percent.

Another point of excitement is that last year’s distribution in the red zone was really similar to Leach’s vaunted 2008 Texas Tech team (59 percent passing/41 percent rushing, 34 pass TDs/24 rush TDs). Early on, it felt like the WSU version of Mike Leach’s Air Raid was more committed to the pass than his Tech teams (I’ve also heard the word stubborn thrown around); considering Leach was 3rd and 7th nationally in scoring in his final two seasons at Tech, the more we can resemble those iterations of the Air Raid, the better.

(on mobile tilt phone horizontal for a better view of the chart; click here to open in its own window)

Offensive line coach Clay McGuire and running backs coach Jim Mastro deserve a lot of credit for the Cougs going from 48th in scoring in 2015 to 18th in 2016, as the additional 17 touchdowns WSU scored compared to the previous year were in large part put down by the running game. It’s no surprise that the o-line trio of Cody O’Connell, Andre Dillard and Cole Madison and the running back trio of Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams have been getting a ton of pre-season praise; their stellar play will be needed to maintain WSU’s jump from 73rd in points per play in 2015 to 30th in 2016.

As much as I would love to football cliché with a line like “the Cougs have to figure out how to replace the production of Gabe Marks and River Cracraft to keep last year’s pace in scoring” I don’t know if they really can, but I also don’t know if WSU needs to replace that production directly via those positions.

As Jeff noted a couple of weeks ago, running backs choose the Air Raid because they will get a ton of touches, and the F has seen more and more of the ball in each season under Leach. At the start of the off season I was worried about the holes left by the two great wide outs mentioned above, but I can’t wait to see what the offense looks like in the fall and with the addition of screen whisperer Keith Harrington back in action the Cougar backfield could be a giant problem for opposing defenses in 2017.