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Architect of the Air Raid, Washington State coach Mike Leach has led the Cougars’ steady climb up the Pac-12 hill in his first five years at the helm.
Over the past two years, Washington State is 17-9, the best record in back-to-back seasons in almost two decades. Some of the credit goes, of course, to Leach’s up-tempo, wide-open, passing-oriented offense that he unleashed upon the college football world along with co-architect Hal Mumme in the last 1980’s.
The secret to the Air Raid – and why the offense was revolutionary at the time – is the scheme attacks the opposing defense both horizontally and vertically, and forces the defense to defend the entire width of the field.
From the basic canons of the Air Raid, a considerable number of different spread schemes have evolved over the past two decades.
USA Today Sports
In fifth-year senior quarterback Luke Falk, Leach may have found the perfect engineer for the Air Raid. Last season, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes.
Averaging 482.5 yards and 38.2 points per game, the Washington State offense led the Pac-12 in passing offense in 2016 as Falk averaged 343.7 yards through the air. Seven different receivers caught at least 33 passes.
Now entering his third season as WSU’s full-time starting quarterback (he has appeared in 31 games), the savvy Falk is nearing 11,000 career passing yards and before the 2017 campaign ends he should eclipse former Oregon State QB Sean Mannion (13,600 yards) as the Pac-12’s all-time passing yardage leader.
Falk should be closely monitored by NFL scouts this season as some draft analysts have pegged him as a high-round draft pick.
“He just needs to steadily improve overall,” Mike Leach said of Falk recently. “The biggest thing is just stay focused on little routine things. A lot about the quarterback is how the team evolves around him. That’s a constant process. He doesn’t have one big weakness he has to work on, but just overall be the best he can be at everything.”
However, Falk lost his top two receivers from a season ago as Gabe Marks (the Pac-12’s all-time leader in receptions) and River Cracraft have graduated. Leach hopes Tavares Martin Jr., Isaiah Johnson-Mack, Kyle Sweet, Dezmon Patmon and highly-touted freshman Jamire Calvin, a four-star 2017 signee from Pasadena, Calif, are able to fill the void. Martin is the top returning pass catcher with 64 receptions for 728 yards and seven touchdowns.
Running backs in the Air Rad are asked to be tough enough carry the football, yet they must also be quick and agile enough to catch passes out of the backfield and powerful enough to pass block.
After practically ignoring the run game in his first couple of season, Leach has steadily integrated the ground game into WSU’s attack. Falk has the responsibility to check into a running play at the line of scrimmage based on the number of defenders in the box.
The trio of James Williams (584 yards), Jamal Morrow (575) and Gerard Wicks (475) all averaged better than 5.3 yards per rush in 2016 as Washington Post averaged the highest number of rushing yards (120.0) in the Leach Era.
How do you contain the Air Raid? The final three games of the 2016 season offered us some clues as Colorado (38-24 win for the Buffaloes in Boulder), defending Pac-12 champion Washington (45-17) and Minnesota of the Big 10 (17-12) all found ways to limit Washington State’s offense one way or the other, resulting in a disappointing season-ending three-game losing streak for the Cougars.
Colorado will get another chance to stymie WSU offensively when the two teams meet Oct. 21 at Martin Stadium in Pullman. More motivation for the Buffaloes - WSU picked Colorado as the Homecoming opponent.
Minnesota might have provided the best blue print in the Holiday Bowl. Utilizing a quick defensive front, the Gophers were consistently able to pressure Falk with four pass rushers, allowing them to drop seven defenders into pass coverage. They also stopped the run, yielding just 39 yards on 23 carries, less than two yards per attempt.
Most likely, Colorado must accomplish the same things in order to prevail over WSU for the second year in a row. But Falk will be protected by an experienced offensive line led by Outland Trophy finalist Cody O’Connell and tackle Cole Madison, rated by Pro Football Focus (PFF) as the most efficient pass blocker in the Pac-12 in 2016 with a 98.4 percent rating.
“Everybody battles inconsistency, especially at the (offensive line) position,” Leach said. “The best thing (O’Connell) can do is steadily become more consistent. Offensive line is a series of corrections. If you fail to do that, your play will go downhill very quickly. You have to constantly maintain your technique and reinforce it. Offensive line is the ultimate technical position.”
Defensively, Washington State lost arguably its best player as safety/nickel Shalom Luani was drafted in the seventh round of April’s NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders.
Ever since he was hired as WSU’s defensive coordinator in January 2015, Alex Grinch’s main mission has been enhancing the speed of the Cougars’ defense one step at a time. The 2017 recruiting class reflected this objective as WSU signed several speedsters for the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa now becomes the face of the WSU defense after amassing 13.5 tackles for loss, seven QB hurries and five sacks in 2016. Leading tackler Peyton Pelluer (93 stops, 60 unassisted) returns to lead the linebacker corps.
WASHINGTON STATE 2017 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE:
Sept. 2 MONTANA STATE, 8:30 p.m. (FS1)
Sept. 9 BOISE STATE, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU)
Sept. 16 OREGON STATE, 3:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)*
Sept. 23 NEVADA
Sept. 29 USC, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)(Fri.)*
Oct. 7 at Oregon*
Oct. 13 at California, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Oct. 21 COLORADO (Homecoming)*
Oct. 28 at Arizona*
Nov. 4 STANFORD*
Nov. 11 at Utah*
Nov. 18 Bye
Nov. 25 at Washington*
(All Times Mountain)
* Pac-12 Conference Game
ICYMI ---> Rivals250 DT is high on Colorado https://t.co/bN1fwFS7AD
— CUSportsNation (@CUSportsNation) July 13, 2017