Heading into the 2015 season Washington State had many question marks, but all of them were around the defense and special teams. It was a given that Mike Leach would have the offense rolling in traditional Air Raid fashion. It was assumed that the offense would carry the team this season, while the defense was in rebuilding mode.
But the high-flying Cougar passing game that averaged 477 yards a game in 2014 is only getting 369 yards a game in 2015. While that is still good enough for 1st in the Pac-12, point production is down to 28.3 points a game, a paltry 10th place. The roles have been flip-flopped, and the defense is now carrying the team while the offense is struggling.
That fact was illustrated perfectly against Cal. The defense held the high-powered Cal offense in check, only giving up 27 points (Cal averages 43.4). But the Cougar offense sputtered in the fourth quarter and couldn't manage any points, allowing Cal to pull away.
Cougar fans, already unhappy after WSU lost to Portland State, now are wondering where the offense has disappeared to and what Leach is going to do to get it back.
The biggest problem facing the Cougar offense is the lack of third down conversions and problems scoring in the red zone. Although they improved slightly in the Cal game, the Cougars are still 9th in the conference at third down conversions and 8th in red zone efficiency. In addition, despite leading the conference in passing, they are 9th overall in total offense due to their lack of a running game and inability to score.
The main thing missing from the Washington State offense is big plays. They are 9th in the Pac-12 in long scrimmage plays, with only 95 plays of 10+ yards (first place Oregon has 157). The Cougars are the only team in the Pac-12 with no plays of 40+ yards. What this equates to is simple: no quick, easy scores. Almost all the Washington State scores must come from long, sustained drives, which are difficult for them to put together because of their poor third down conversions.
How does Leach fix this and get the Air Raid flying again? First quarterback Luke Falk needs to elevate his game. The sophomore is playing well right now but he must make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball faster. There are different ways for him to accomplish this. First he must be decisive and get the pass off quickly. But not all the blame is his. He needs help from his receivers, who need to find ways to get open faster. They also need to be better with their hands and not drop so many balls.
Falk getting the pass off quicker will definitely help, but Leach also needs to emphasize short, quick hitting passes and the run game. The Cougar running backs are actually running well, in their limited chances. Keith Harrington is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and Gerard Wicks is getting 4.4 yards per run. They need to get more rushes in. This will force the opposing defenses to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which will then open up the deep passes.
Despite this week's game being played at Oregon, the Cougars have a decent chance of pulling off the upset. Oregon's strength is their run game, and WSU played well against a very good run team in Cal. The Bears were averaging 192 yards per game on the ground, and the Cougars held them to 79. If Leach can get the Air Raid going and turn in that kind of defensive performance against the Ducks, they have a great chance of getting a win in Eugene.