While Mike Leach is, indeed, the head coach of the Washington State Cougars football team, that is not how most people would immediately identify him. Before Leach took over at Washington State, he was one of the original disciples of the Air Raid offense.
It was gimmicky and flashy and strange, particularly in a time when running the ball was how the majority of teams scored. Leach was one of the first to truly embrace airing it out.
A little known fact, then, about Mike Leach: His teams are traditionally most successful when they run the football well.
Yes, the same man who has called for more than 80 passes in a single game, on more than one occasion, is generally going to win when his teams do something he rarely calls for – run.
When he was coaching at Texas Tech, his teams went 50-15 when rushing for more than 50 yards. When they didn’t? A dismal 34-28. At Washington State, the Cougars have gone 11-4 when rushing for more than 90 yards. Anything less than that has resulted in a 14-27 record.
Leach seems to have figured this out. Wazzu’s four-game win streak has come in the wake of establishing its ground game. This portends enormous problems for Arizona State on Saturday.
By all accounts, the Sun Devils are not a bad football team. They are 5-2 and still well in contention to win the Pac-12. However, Colorado exposed a new side of Arizona State – the side that cannot stop the run.
The Buffs piled up 315 yards on the ground in a 40-16 win, which was 316 more than UCLA managed on the Sun Devils just the week before.
“We didn’t play very well and my hat goes off to them because they ran the ball on us unlike anyone has ever run it the whole time I’ve been at Arizona State,” Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said.
Arizona State faithful will argue that injuries have played a factor in the Devils’ porous defense, and they have, to be sure. Linebacker Christian Sam remains out with a foot injury, and combined with Laiu Moeakiola and Salamo Fiso, the trio has missed 11 games this year.
“If you had told me before the season that Salamo Fiso is going to miss the first three games and Christian Sam is going to be hurt pretty much most of the year and you’re going to be 5-2, I’d have said you’re a liar,” Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “There’s no chance. To say it doesn’t hurt us is having your head stuck in the mud.”
Give Patterson credit for his candor. There is certainly no denying the fact that the Sun Devils are hurting, and Colorado can give 315 reasons. It just so happens that Arizona State’s worst defensive performance is coinciding with the best sustained rushing attack in recent memory for Washington State, which scored all three of its touchdowns on the ground in a 27-21 win over UCLA.
It marked the first time since 2012 that a Leach-coached team scored all of its offensive touchdowns by running.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Saturday marked the second in as many weeks.