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Washington State has a better run game than you think

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The Cougar run game has some interesting changes coming. After averaging 5.0 yards per carry last year, a change in running backs and an improved O-line should produce even more yards this season.

Theron West runs for a nice gain in the New Mexico Bowl.
Theron West runs for a nice gain in the New Mexico Bowl.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Leach coached teams are known for passing. The Air Raid inventor is famous for teams that put up huge passing numbers. Last season Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday attempted 714 passes and finished the year with 4,597 passing yards. On Oct. 19, 2013 Halliday attempted a staggering 89 passes in a losing effort against Oregon. That broke the FBS-level pass attempt record of 83 set by Drew Brees back in 1998.

All of which leads to the conclusion that WSU can't run the ball. But they actually have a surprisingly effective run game. In 2013 they only ran the ball 13 times per game, but they averaged a healthy 5.0 yards per carry. That was with an undersized offensive line that averaged only 275 pounds and didn't provide too many holes for the running backs.

That O-line has been beefed up this year with new players. They now average 310 pounds.

"We're quickly developing a young team," head Coach Mike Leach told Pac-12 Networks. "We've got a lot of new faces on the O-line but they're bigger people and they're stronger people."

One of the misconceptions about Leach is that he doesn't call very many runs. In his Air Raid system, the quarterback on the field actually calls most of the run plays. When the quarterback sees a favorable situation, such as only three defensive lineman, he is supposed to change the play at the line of scrimmage from a pass to a run. Understandably, most quarterbacks would rather pass than run, so the run call doesn't always get made.

One of the surprises in fall camp has been the emergence of some different faces in the running back competition. Last years team leaders, Marcus Mason and Teondray Caldwell, have fallen out of the competition. Mason, last seasons leading rusher, is not even in the top three running backs and is working on the scout team. Caldwell, the teams second leading rusher, has been moved to defense. Jamal Morrow,  Gerard Wicks, and Theron West are now the top three running backs on the roster.

"We've made some huge strides in our running game this fall camp," Halliday told  Pac-12 Networks. " We've had some guys step up. Theron West has had a great camp and will be a redshirt senior. Then Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks are two guys that are redshirt freshmen, they've had huge camps. So we're excited to see what we can do up front."

West played very well last year in the New Mexico Bowl, after hardly seeing the field for much of the year. In the final game of the season, West had 67 total yards of offense on only 6 touches, while Mason and Caldwell combined for only 35 yards on 11 touches. Morrow and Wicks are both redshirt freshmen and have never carried the ball in a college game.

Although Morrow has been named the number one back for the season opener against Rutgers and Wicks as number two, Leach usually plays running back-by-committee and all three can be expected to play.

Leach and the Cougars will always be a pass-first team. But the fact that Morrow, Wicks and West have beaten out last years rushing leaders seems to bode well that more running yards are coming for Washington State. Combine that with a bigger and more athletic offensive line, and the rushing totals should climb for the Cougars this season.