Over his eight seasons at Washington State, Mike Leach’s aversion to the ground game was immortalized as Pac-12 canon. No team in college football passed more or relied less on the run than his Cougars. Conference coaches could set their watches by their 50-plus passes per game.
This was the Air Raid in its simplest, purest form, and for the better part of a decade, Washington State’s run game remained largely an afterthought. Before Leach left for the Southeastern Conference last January, the Cougars ran the ball just 210 times during his final season, the lowest total in the nation by a staggering 88 attempts. Only once over Leach’s tenure did his offense finish above last in that category.
By comparison, new Cougars coach Nick Rolovich’s Run-and-Shoot offense might as well be the Ground-and-Pound.
Washington State still ranks last in the conference in rush attempts this season. But as USC welcomes the Cougars to the Coliseum in a battle of high-powered passing attacks, a reinvigorated run game is another unexpected variable it’ll have to prepare for this week, if it hopes to keep its unscathed record intact.
That’s assuming the teams are intact enough to play by Sunday. Both USC and Washington State had their games canceled last Saturday because of COVID-19 issues — USC because it fell below the required number of available offensive linemen, Washington State because it couldn’t field a 53-man roster. Their meeting was delayed from Friday night to allow for some players to return from quarantine. Regardless, both are likely to be somewhat short-handed on Sunday.
With several USC players expected to leave isolation by Sunday, coach Clay Helton said Thursday that the Trojans were “in a really good place” to play. Washington State athletic director Pat Chun echoed that sentiment, suggesting the game was “all systems go,” even while five Cougars remained in quarantine.
How those absences will affect either offense remains unclear. Washington State is planning to welcome back freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura, a former USC recruiting target whose tape through two games made an impression on Helton.
“He has that confidence and that demeanor to lead a football team,” Helton said. “He’s got the quarterback intangibles. We saw that in recruiting. It was easy to see his arm talent, but there’s so much more to being a quarterback. And those intangibles shine through.”
What Helton hadn’t exactly expected was Washington State’s efficiency running the ball. The Cougars have been without star all-purpose back Max Borghi since training camp as he battled a back injury. But in his stead, senior Deon McIntosh has been a surprising workhorse, averaging 17 carries per game and better than seven yards per carry.
“All of a sudden, you lose Max Borghi, and you’re going to your second back, and you put McIntosh in, and you still keep that discipline,” Helton said. “He’s done a really nice job running the ball between the tackles and attacking every inch of grass vertically and horizontally.”
Borghi, who totaled 1,414 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019, returned to practice this week, and Rolovich didn’t rule out a return to the field on Sunday. But among Pac-12 backs with at least 30 carries, only Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson and Oregon’s Travis Dye have been more explosive on a per-carry basis than McIntosh.
In USC, he’s likely to face a front seven short on run-stoppers at the second level. The Trojans could be without both of their starting inside linebackers, Palaie Gaoteote (concussion) and Ralen Goforth (foot).
An already thin defense will be stretched even thinner by Rolovich’s offense, which, like his predecessor, is predicated on spreading the field with four-wide personnel. With so many receivers to worry about, USC will have to rely on its sub packages more than usual, putting pressure on its secondary to win one-on-one matchups and tackle in the open field.
It’s a test unlike any USC has faced this season. But unlike its first three matchups, the Trojans at least have tape to study of Washington State and its offense.
They’ve also had a week off to study it, with their last game canceled. What they’ve seen so far is a system not all that unlike their own, with a talented quarterback meant to air it out and a run game to keep everything in balance.
“They got the perfect combination of a talented quarterback, two elite wideouts on the outside that you have to respect, and then a ground game inside that's producing not only yards but points, 33 points per game right now,” Helton said. “It’s a great challenge for us.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.