It’s difficult to decide who has had a stranger 2016 football season: Washington State or Oregon.
Prior to Saturday, the Ducks had a loss to Colorado on the ledger, a team that had won just two of its previous 25 Pac-12 contests. The Cougars, though, owned a loss to an FCS team, Eastern Washington, which isn’t a terrible program, but a loss to any FCS team not named North Dakota State is an ugly one.
Then again, Oregon had been dropped by Nebraska for the first time in the Mike Riley era, which dates back to 2008. But Boise State had followed the blueprint set by Eastern Washington and upset the Cougars for a second straight week, sending what was supposed to be a championship contender to an 0-2 start.
Saturday, however — Saturday decided it.
The Cougars soundly beat the Ducks, 51-33, though it was the manner in which they did it that was decidedly strange.
When Mike Leach was hired as the WSU football coach in 2011, he made it clear that he would bring with him the air raid offense that had become his signature. The Cougars would throw and throw and throw some more. That was the formula. And that’s what they did.
It wasn’t just that Washington State tweaked its offense and threw a wrinkle in its defense. It completely shifted the identity it has been building for half a decade.
Using a rotating cast of runners that featured, mainly, Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams, Washington State ran for 280 yards and six touchdowns. It was the most scores the Cougars have run for since 1996, against Louisiana-Monroe. Better yet: It marked the second consecutive game that the triumvirate set the record for rushing yards in a game under Leach.
“The (offensive) line did a great job tonight, all the credit goes to them,” Morrow said. “I don’t think anybody expected six touchdowns out of us. It’s great. Just to come out here and have a great performance like that, we can only build on that, learn from our mistakes and keep going.”
If one were to have guessed which team would have featured more rushing power, the unanimous answer would have been Oregon, no question. Royce Freeman is a bona fide Heisman candidate, though the rest of his teammates — particularly those on the defensive side — are doing him no favors. And Freeman was excellent, running for three touchdowns and nearly 140 yards.
But that paled in comparison to the Morrow-Wicks-Williams three-headed attack, each of whom found the end zone twice.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” Wicks said. “I started it off, then Jamal came on. We all excite each other. When I score and we all run out together, we all celebrate together, it’s like a brotherhood, we all gotta bring something to the table, and us playing well tonight gave us the advantage to win the game.”
It was the second straight game the rushing attack has given the Cougs an advantage. For the first time in the Leach era, Washington State scored more than 50 in back-to-back games. Perhaps not coincidentally, those two performances featured the most rushing yards in the Leach era.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re taking this Pac-12 play as a new season,” WSU quarterback Luke Falk said. “Right now, we’re 1-0, there were a lot of positives, and I think we’re gonna learn from it.”
Indeed. Washington State seems to have learned to run the ball.