Mike Merrell’s Three-And-Out: Nick Aliotti Was Right
I know. He was fined. It was not politically correct. It was even against the rules. But it was honest, and it was the truth. Just as Nick Aliotti intimated (well, spouted off, actually), during garbage time of last year’s Oregon/Washington State game Wazoo coach Mike Leach should have been working on his running game instead of scoring two passing touchdowns on Oregon’s scout team, while Connor Halliday broke league records for both passes attempted and completions. I’ve never heard of a record for incomplete passes, but Halliday’s 27 that hit the turf plus another four that were completed to the wrong team had to rank right down there. For the game, WSU ran for a total of two yards. Against Rutgers Thursday night, they tripled that output, but six yards rushing still isn’t exactly lighting it up.
The Cougars are probably the only team that has its mascot in the Urban Dictionary, and as a verb no less: To coug. It’s your proverbial snatching of defeat out of the jaws of victory. While the Urban Dictionary entry is dated December 4, 2005, Leach’s Air Raid Offense is certainly doing its part to make sure that the entry sticks, and is this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. Though the Urban Dictionary defines “to coug” as relating to the end of a game, the Cougs didn’t restrict their coug-ing to the fourth quarter in their 41-38 loss to Rutgers of the Big 10 Thursday night. In the first quarter they got a turnover at the Rutgers two-yard line. After three passes that went nowhere, they settled for a field goal. Do the math: that’s a four-point swing and they lost by three.
We all know that the passing game naturally gets squeezed the closer a team gets to pay dirt. From the two-yard line, you’ve only got 12 yards of vertical to work with. Throw in 22 players and a half dozen officials and it’s pretty crowded. Having at least a threat of a run helps bunch the defense toward the middle of the field, opening up a little more space.
Washington State’s inability to run also cost them the New Mexico Bowl last year. When killing the clock by running the ball was in order, Wazzu’s incomplete passes stopped the clock, giving Colorado State time to score last and secure a 48-45 victory.
The Air Raid Offense is no doubt a viable strategy when a team has a large enough lead to force the opposition to abandon an ordinarily effective running game. It’s also viable for coming from behind. But when it comes to punching it in from the two or preserving a narrow lead, it is next to worthless.
2. A more subtle defect of the Air Raid Offense is this: How is the defense of an Air Raid Offense team ever going to get the practice it needs to effectively defend against the run? Most of the time that a team plays football is spent playing against itself. It’s called practice. If you don’t have a running game for a real game, how are you going to have a running game in practice? And if you don’t have a running game in practice, then how is your defense going to get any real experience defending against the run? The scout team?
Running backs that don’t make WSU’s travel squad are not going to provide a reasonable imitation of, say, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner or Royce Freeman. And, what are the chances of selling a star running back recruit on the idea of five carries a game? Let’s face it. If Wazzu had anybody who could run the ball, he would have been on the field with first and goal at the two.
Washington State’s inability to defend the run is not just theory. The Cougars were 94th nationally in rushing defense in 2013. Rutgers, which last year was 102nd in I-A for rushing with a 129.5 yards/game average, ran for 215 against the Cougars. What’s more, a critical portion of those yards were on Rutgers’ final drive, and the Cougars were helpless to stop them. Last year, Oregon ran for 383 yards on WSU, while passing for an additional 336. It is unlikely that a team can abandon the run as part of its offensive strategy without inadvertently compromising the run as part of its defense. And teams with no run defense tend to lose.
3. Why should we (or anyone in the Pac-12) care? With five power conferences and four playoff spots, at least one conference will get left out. It won’t be the SEC. Florida State (or whoever, if anybody, from the ACC beats them) would have to mess up pretty badly (which Florida State nearly did against Oklahoma State Saturday) to get left out. That leaves the Big 12, the B1G and the Pac-12 as the most likely candidates for odd-conference out, and Oklahoma State made a big statement in favor of inviting the Big 12 to the party with its near-win over FSU.
The conventional preseason wisdom was that the Pac-12 is the toughest top-to-bottom, but chances are the selection committee will end up with the decision of excluding either the Pac-12 or the Big Ten. Fortunately, California made a statement by upsetting the B1G’s Northwestern Wildcats, but with Colorado’s loss to Colorado State and Washington’s and UCLA’s struggles against Hawaii and Virginia, respectively, head-to-head against the Big Ten becomes critical.
Had the Pac-12 opened at 2-0 against the Big Ten, the “toughest conference top-to-bottom” argument would have been a lot stronger, and the conference’s chances of surviving a loss in the Oregon/Michigan State game, possibly at the expense of the Big 12, would have been bolstered. As it is, the showdown between Oregon and Michigan State this coming Saturday, even this early in the season, may be the deciding factor not only for the two teams, but for their entire conferences as well.
Aliotti’s criticism of Leach’s obsession with the pass was spot on and in the Pac-12’s best interest. Instead of fining Aliotti for commenting on Leach’s OCD where the pass is concerned, the Pac-12 should have ordered Leach to pay him a consulting fee and fined Leach for failing to follow the advice. The conference’s playoff chances would be one win better if they had.