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.

Surprise! It is another pass.

Craig Strobeck

Surprise! It’s another pass.

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.

The word from above? Pass!

Craig Strobeck

The word from above? Pass!

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.

Whoa! This guys a lot faster than the tackling dummies we practice on!

Craig Strobeck

Whoa! This guy’s a lot faster than the tackling dummies we practice on!

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.


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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • Godux

    Very well done. My thought after watching that game was that Rutgers left a lot of points off of the board. Perhaps the coaches couldn’t believe it was that easy to run on the Cougs, despite evidence on the field. Got to say thank-you to them for making it a close loss.
    Washington , Colorado, UCLA, and Oregon State did as much as they could to negate that.
    UCLA is what we thought they were (dammit) and Colorado has a good shot at being the Bottom rung on the ladder. Hopefully Washington can convince the world, or at least the committee, that their game was a result of playing their #2 QB. For their sake and the conference hope, it would probably be best if they didn’t have to start him again. Oregon State can point out that they are usually slow starters without stretching the truth much, as long as they look better from here out.
    On the plus side, USC and Utah pumped up their images, though against cupcakes. Most good teams open the season vs those. Florida State might have benefitted, had they done so. USC stuffed all the extra baggage they gathered during the previous week into one of the many empty lockers in their dressing room and passed the 700 yard mark for total offence. Utah left no doubt they have an offense to worry most of their opponents with and played decent D as well.
    This week the onus is on Oregon and beating the spread would be a big help. Which brings to mind how many big times boosters who have bookies are still cursing Marshall for blowing the cover last week. It’s not just respect that the games influence, it’s donations too.
    Here’s to a 45-24 victory that I wouldn’t put any money down on, but which would be a nice badge for later.

    • Mike Merrell

      Godux —

      Thanks for the comments. I also was surprised that Rutgers didn’t run more, especially on their final drive. Their passing game was working as well, but they could have pretty much killed the clock and done so with less risk had they just kept running.

      Good points on the rest of the Pac. The only real letdowns were Colorado, Wazzu and UW, but their under performances were enough to drop the Pac’s overall conference rating, and the conference ratings will matter this year! 45-24 would be a big help, but I would settle for 21-20.

      • Godux

        45-24 wasn’t all that bad of a guess

        • Mike Merrell

          Godux —

          Wow! You nailed it. Look out, Las Vegas!

  • Joseph

    “That’s total bullshit that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did,” Aliotti said. “And you can print that and you can send it to him, and he can comment, too. I think it’s low class and it’s bullshit to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team.”

    “Make sure he knows that. Because I don’t really care.”


    It’s disgusting that an Oregon coach would insult an opposing coach and whine like that following a game. Don’t defend Allioti whining after that game. It was embarrassing for the organization.

    • Mike Merrell

      Joseph —

      Thanks for joining the discussion here at FishDuck. I have to take exception to your statement that Aliotti was whining. Whatever he was doing, it wasn’t whining, which is defined as uttering a high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry (think whipped pup, not P.O.’d Italian). It’s sort of like whimpering, and I think you’re the first person who has ever accused Aliotti of whimpering or whining. That’s what Huskies do every year after their annual beatdown, and as anybody who knows anything at all about Aliotti will tell you, it is totally not his style. If you want to get doggy about it, what Aliotti did was more like barking — ferociously. Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Grrrrrr! Bow wow wow wow! Ruff!!! Grrrrr….

      I get it that it wasn’t a politically correct thing to do (which I admitted). I get it that he spouted off (which I admitted). I get it that it is against the rules (which I admitted). Out of place? Yes. Tactless? Yes. Embarrassing for the organization? Yes. Even Aliotti admitted that after the heat of the moment. Still, none of that changes the fact that Aliotti was right and that Leach (and the entire Pac-12) would have been better served had Leach taken what Aliotti said to heart.

      At the end of last year’s Oregon game, Wazzu had a chance to work on their running game and they didn’t. Why not? Because they NEVER work on their running game, and as a result they have lost their last two games, which with any semblance of a running game and, correspondingly, a running defense, they would have won. This would have been not only to their own benefit but to the benefit of the entire conference. Aliotti admitted embarrassment. So far, Leach hasn’t, and he hasn’t changed a thing as he keeps alive the only verb derived from a school mascot: To Coug.

      • Joseph

        Whine: to complain in an annoying way. So yes he did whine as he complained in an annoying way. Nick was upset that Leach continued to throw the ball against his subs and try to score points. He was not pointing out the inherent flaws in the air raid offense, or encouraging Coach Leach to work on his running game. He was merely upset that his defensive stats were worse for the game. I encourage you to read the quotes from Allioti again and see if he mentions working on the run game at all. While yes you make an interesting point saying that the run game has lost Wazzu their last two games, intimating in any way that Nick Allioti was right in whining about Leach trying to practice his offense late in the game is silly. Leach most likely viewed the end of the Oregon game as a chance for his team to practice the offense against a less stout defense, and get more game experience.

        • Mike Merrell

          We are all entitled to our opinions. Personally I didn’t find Aliotti’s comments annoying at all. I watch the games to the end, and what I found annoying was Leach’s OCD with the pass as the hour approached midnight (or whatever it was) and his strategy to continue passing the ball when it had already stoutly been proven a failure.

          Annoying is such a personal thing, though. I’m fine with screeching chalk on a chalk board, but can’t handle a stick being drug through wet sand. I have no problem with your seeing it the other way. Besides, irritating and complaining alone do not make for whining. A pit bull frothing at the mouth and barking, complaining that you are too close to his fence is irritating. That doesn’t make it whining. Anybody who has ever had a dog knows the difference between whining and barking. Aliotti was barking.

          Probably the thing that was most annoying to you about Aliotti’s comments was that the truth hurts. It’s much more pleasant to hear about how great Connor Halliday was to throw 89 passes and complete 40-whatever, and the media just couldn’t pat him on the back enough. Never mind that he threw 31 incompletions, including 4 interceptions, Never mind that his team lost and lost badly, largely because of his excess passing, which included as many int’s as Mariota threw the ENTIRE YEAR. Never mind that “run the ball” is not in the Cougars’ vocabulary, either offensively or defensively. Let’s just tell Leach and Connor how great they did, give them credit for a few records, and encourage them to keep it up. (I do still wonder what the record for incompletions is, though.) Oh, and I almost forgot, let’s dump on Aliotti for being the only one to comment with any honesty at all.

          It is a life lesson that your enemies will do you favors that your friends never would think of, because your enemies will give you blunt honesty, which is exactly what Aliotti did. Did Aliotti specifically mention working on the running game? No, but if you don’t pass I think that is sort of what is left.

          I’m sure that Leach viewed it as a chance to get more experience, obviously at PASSING THE BALL! But Wazzu doesn’t need more practice passing the ball. I mean, come on, sixty or seventy passes a game, plus God knows how many hours of your practice time against your own scout team ought to do it, don’t you think? They need practice running the ball. I don’t credit Aliotti as having altruistic motivation, but his calling the OCD with the passing game B.S. was spot on blunt honesty. Too bad Leach hasn’t taken it to heart. His team would have at least two more wins by now.

          • Joseph

            “Probably the thing that was most annoying to you about Aliotti’s comments was that the truth hurts.” First of all I am a die hard Duck raised in Eugene. I am not a cougar fan, if I was I probably wouldn’t be on a site solely dedicated to Oregon sports. I couldn’t give a damn about some silly wazzu records and quite frankly I doubt Coach Leach does either. He was probably rather displeased with his teams performance. Secondly I have owned a dog, and am well aware of the difference between a dog barking and whining. I don’t know if Mr. Allioti would appreciate you comparing him to a dog. Thirdly I doubt Coach Leach has OCD. HE RUNS THE AIR RAID AN OFFENSE WHERE YOU PASS 90% OF THE TIME. WHEN HE PRACTICES HIS OFFENSE HE DOESN’T RUN BECAUSE THAT ISN’T PART OF HIS OFFENSE. That said you’re right maybe if he wasn’t so set in his offense and willing to run the ball more his teams would win more games. Allioti in no way implied he wanted Leach to work on the run game. He implied he wanted Leach to role over and play dead because the game was out of reach. This website’s constant pandering to Oregon consistently removes it ability to deliver quality content. Instead of spinning your article to defend Allioti just write an article about the flaws of the Air Raid. Could have talked about Cal as well.

          • FishDuck

            Geez Joseph…it’s OK to run your offense, but we had third teamers in the game at the end while WSU kept their first team–simply to score points?

            Getting points like that IS bush-league, and it does not help our young players grow and Leach’s back-ups missed a growth opportunity. Throw the risk of injury and…..I think Nick nailed it.

            Not classy, but accurate.

            Do I endorse that all the time? No, but I think Nick knew he was on his way out and this flew well above his “give-a-shit” level of decorum at that moment.

            (I’m not classy either….)

            And yes….we shamelessly pander to the Ducks and make no apologies for it. If the “Quality” content you speak of means slandering and throwing mud on my beloved ducks?

            Count us out.

          • Mike Merrell

            First I bring dogs into the discussion only to illustrate the difference between barking and whining, which seems to be a concept that you are fighting for some reason. Really, an irate Italian whining? There is no suggestion that Nick Aliotti is a dog. I’m saying there is no way that he is a whiner, and am using the dog analogy to try to explain the difference between whining and barking, or growling, all of which people do, in a manner of speaking. You see it all the time in novels:
            “Leave me alone!” he barked (or growled).
            “Leave me alone,” he whined. Not the same thing.

            Second, why didn’t I talk about Cal as well? I’m glad you brought that up. Cal abandoned the Air Raid against Northwestern. They rushed 45 times (vs. 39 passes) for 114 yards. And they won!!! Washington State ran 14 times (including sacks) for six yards. And they lost. Hardly the same thing, and I think that you would have to agree that looking at Cal adds credence to my argument.

            Why do I spin my article to defend Aliotti instead of just writing about the flaws of the Air Raid? Because it would have been boring. And the point that Nick Aliotti was right that WSU just didn’t know when to stop passing makes the article more interesting. Don’t tell me that you would have had anywhere near the interest you have shown in all of this if I had just written about the shortcomings of the Air Raid offense.

            I think you’re a little too zeroed in on the idea that I’m defending Aliotti’s actions. I’m not. I’m just saying he was right about WSU passing too much. Should WSU have rolled over and played dead? That’s a judgment call, but, yes, I think they should have. It was very, very late. The game had been going on forever. The risk on injury was heightened. Italians were losing their patience. I can’t speak for everybody, but WSU’s determination to pass to the bloody end was extremely tiresome to me. Halliday back to pass, Halliday back to pass, Halliday back to pass….

            Keeping it going accomplished nothing positive, and in my opinion it was both provocative and ungentlemanly of Leach. There is nothing wrong with admitting defeat when it is obvious for all of the world to see. Actually, it is pretentious to do otherwise. Looking at it on a more consequential scale, it’s what Hitler should have done when we crossed the Rhine. I fully understand Aliotti’s anger. This doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have kept his mouth shut, which would have been the “correct” thing to do. There’s a difference between being right (about WSU’s boring strategy and not knowing when to quit) and being “correct” (where keeping his feelings to himself were concerned).

            As I’ve said, we’re all entitled to our opinions. There is no requirement that you agree with me. I think I have a little more appreciation for people spouting off their true feelings than you do. I find it spicy and refreshing. Must be the Merrelli in me.

          • Joseph

            I still disagree on the his barking. I find it whining and I must say I am sure irate Italians whine just as much as irate Frenchman, or an irate German. I see you have quite the high opinion of Italians (your heritage I’m assuming. Well Mr. Merell I will say it seems we both get a bit excited about spouting off opinions as we have been doing that to each other for the past couple days. I will say I think there is a time and a place for it though and Coach Allioti did not pick the correct time for it, which granted is a mistake I have made many times in my life. I think I will call it at saying I disagree and have no qualms with Leach passing the ball, and many qualms with Allioti’s actions. I know you don’t feel the same. Either way we can agree on one thing. GO DUCKS!

          • Mike

            Hi, Joseph —

            I totally agree that it wasn’t the correct time and place for spouting off. Me, Italian? While my ancestors were probably kicked out of every respectable country in Europe, I’m not aware of any Italian in my background, but anything is probably possible – one ancestor was on the Mayflower, one built roads with Davy Crockett, a family on the Oregon Trail and a great grandmother who was a Colorado mining prostitute, so who knows? By all means, though, GO DUCKS!!!

  • Bailey in Bend

    “but Halliday’s 27 that hit the turf plus another four that were completed to the wrong team.”

    Hey, come on……For some guys a completion is a completion!

    Nice stats kid!