The thing about the Air Raid is that it’s as much an attitude and a philosophy as it is a scheme. Sure, there are lots of Xs and Os and arrows scribbled on pieces of paper that illustrate how brilliantly the sausage gets made, but at its core — when you strip everything else away — the Air Raid really is just about audacity.
Even in an era in which the passing game is more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before at all levels of football — more than 20 years after Hal Mumme and Mike Leach brought their wacky ideas to the Big Boy College Football Scene at Kentucky — there are people all over the game who still just can’t BELIEVE that a team would put the ball in the air 50, 60 or even 70 times in a game, as WSU regularly does.
As we all know, nobody would have used the word “audacious” to describe Falk in the first two games: Lots of checkdowns, very few throws beyond five yards, earning him a seat on the bench — twice!*
*Jason Gesser confirmed on the pregame broadcast that Falk had passed the concussion protocol after leaving the game against Boise State.
That all changed on Saturday. WSU could have moved the ball in any number of ways against OSU, whose defense is undeniably awful. However, rather than just run all over the Beavers — as they likely could have, since everyone else has — WSU dropped back to pass 61 times against just 13 designed runs. And Falk didn’t just throw it a bunch; he threw it a bunch to a very specific group of people:
Now, much is made of the power Mike Leach puts in the hands of his quarterback to get in and out of plays at the line of scrimmage. But I’m going to bet dollars to donuts that this shift came from the top. This wasn’t just a “get right” game. This was about getting back to the audacity of the Air Raid.
This was 100% about attitude. This was Leach as his most audacious, arrogant self — and I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.
We don’t just throw the ball a lot. We throw the ball a lot AND we throw it wherever we damn well please. Today, that’s going to be to our outside receivers. And you can’t f—ing stop us.
This was an important message, because if we’re being brutally honest, the evidence suggested that Luke Falk — whether he realized it or not — was lulled into believing, on some level, that the Air Raid could be at the very least limited in its explosiveness if the defense was willing to flood the patterns with defenders.
In order for the Air Raid to work at its peak level, one has to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it cannot be stopped no matter what the defense does.
At the risk of sacrilege, I believe Connor Halliday’s 2014 season is the gold standard for Air Raid QBs at WSU. As a quarterback who was willing to make just about any throw at just about any time in just about any situation, Halliday was on pace for roughly 5,800 yards and 48 touchdowns. Falk’s last two seasons, by comparison, have topped out at a shade under 4,500 yards and 38 touchdowns.
Did Halliday sometimes get himself into trouble? You bet — he also was on pace for 16 or 17 interceptions that season. But was the passing game absolutely terrifying for opponents? Affirmative! Just ask No. 2 Oregon, which nearly left Martin Stadium with a loss (thanks #Pac12Refs), or Utah (21-point comeback) or Cal (NCAA record 734 passing yards) or No. 15 Arizona (489 yards).
No, Halliday didn’t win as many games as Falk has, but that’s not at issue here. (Besides, I think anyone with half a brain knows that it’s absolute lunacy to lay that season’s problems at Halliday’s feet.) What’s germane to this conversation is that Halliday led a passing attack that was absolutely unstoppable for large swaths of games (without the benefit of an even average rushing attack, I might add), and his single-minded belief in his ability to shred opponents with his arm played a significant role in that.
None of us wants Falk to be Halliday, but on Saturday, we saw him grab hold of a little piece of that audacity that Halliday wore on his sleeve so readily. Falk threw the ball with more conviction than we’ve seen all season, and I don’t know about you, but he surprised me with the zip he put on some of the throws. Whether he actually is throwing harder this season or if it just appears so in comparison to all the safe throws he’d been making in the first two games is unclear, but it was noticeable. And man, was it good to see.
Of course Falk wasn’t perfect, as some have felt the need to rush to point out — there were throws that could have been intercepted, especially by a better team, blah blah blah. Personally, I don’t care: If this offense is going to be what it can be, it needed to capture a big dose of that swagger that got knocked out of it somewhere in the Rocky Mountains last November, and nothing says “swagger” like doing something over and over and over and over again and watching an opponent be unable to come close to stopping it.
I’m not naïve enough to think that WSU is going to be able to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to everyone, which I think is what the skeptics are most concerned with. “This won’t work against USC!” they cry. They, of course, are correct.
That’s not the point. The offense needed to get back to believing that its level of success has much more to do with what the 11 guys wearing crimson (or gray or anthracite or whatever) are doing than what the other guys are doing.
That even when the other team is trying to roll coverage, you can still count on Tavares Martin Jr. to murderkill a DB with his release or his break. That even when a corner is playing tight on Isaiah Johnson-Mack, it probably won’t matter because he’s just going to beast someone for a jump ball anyway. That just when those guys think they’re going to get a break, here comes Dezmon Patmon to do it all again. That when the linebackers are just getting set in their zones, whoops!, the ball is already out and there go Jamire Calvin or Kyle Sweet.
If WSU is going to get where it wants to go this season, the Cougs need Luke Falk to play with that kind of belief. And Saturday was an awesome first step in that direction.
What We Liked
I didn’t get to watch the game live, as I had another commitment with my kids on Saturday. (This is the downside of afternoon games.) I did, however, follow it on my phone. And I found myself getting increasingly annoyed with the defense as the game wore on, wondering why it was that we appeared to be having such a difficult time stopping OSU.
When I got home and watched the game, it all made a lot more sense: WSU rotated in a lot — and I mean a lot — of guys on defense. As near as I could tell, the only Cougs who played anything resembling their normal amount of snaps were Isaac Dotson, Robert Taylor and Jalen Thompson. Every other position got a heavy dose of second stringers, and it started as early as the second series, when Alex Grinch replaced the three down linemen, both corners and the nickel.
There’s really no way to put this delicately for OSU fans: WSU kinda treated this as a scrimmage, which is more than a little mind blowing.
But the investment should pay off, with guys getting live reps that they otherwise wouldn’t experience. This is particularly significant in light of Peyton Pelluer’s season-ending injury. We got a long look at Nate DeRider and Jahad Woods in the middle, and it sure looks like that’s going to be Woods’ job sooner rather than later as he was able to get his feet under him against an overmatched opponent with another one waiting on deck.
It’ll be interesting to see how the snaps are divvied up this weekend. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was more of the same as Grinch gives his best 20 or so defensive players a chance to prove they belong on the field going forward.
Honorable mention: With the notable exception of a blocked field goal, special teams were again a strength. A man could get spoiled by this, I tell you.
There are always lots of people worth recognizing in a beatdown such as this one, but as I watched it, I just kept thinking time and again: Man, Isaac Dotson is all over the place.
He had himself a heck of a game (seven tackles, one for loss, one pass break up, one quarterback hit), he’s having himself a heck of a season (up to second on the team in tackles), and now he’s going to be counted on to help out whoever ends up playing next to him. Please, just stay healthy.
Honorable mention goes to Johnson-Mack, who it appears is really starting to understand just how much of a physical advantage he has over most of the corners who will try to cover him. I know Martin Jr. has been mentoring him, but can we get Vince Mayle on the horn, too?
What Needs To Improve
Again, the rushing attack was still pretty “meh.” It’s tough to be too critical when there were only 13 designed runs — I’m going to assume it’s not that easy to just up and block for a run once every six plays.
That said ... James Williams had a pair of runs go for 39 total yards, and the other 11 carries went for 37 — 3.4 yards per attempt. That’s 2014 bad, and it’s baffling. Will Leach apply some of that audacity to the running game this week?
Nevada comes to town in what some of us authors believed, before the season, could be a trap game.
I no longer believe that! Nevada is terrible. Like, maybe actually worse than Montana State terrible. They’re 0-3, fresh off a loss to Idaho State. And, again, not that losses to FCS are a lead pipe lock way to evaluate a team, as we all know, but ... that’s bad. The Wolf Pack are ranked No. 117 by Bill Connelly’s S&P+.
To compound matters, Nevada will be starting a true freshman at quarterback. Good luck, young man.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. PT and the game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.