My first exposure to Mike Leach was the 2004 Holiday bowl. I was in graduate school in Ireland, I had followed Aaron Rodgers and JJ Arrington over internet streams of Joe Starkey and the CalBears.com Gametracker but I had not seen them play. I was flying home for the holidays and hoped to be able to go to Cal's bowl game. When the Rose Bowl looked like a possibility my dad found a friend who lived in Pasadena and went to stand in line in for hours for the chance to get a couple of the very few tickets they were selling to city residents; he missed out. When the Holiday Bowl was announced instead, we jumped at the tickets. I thought the game would feature one of the best offenses that Cal has ever had, what stood out instead was the Air-Raid Offense of Texas Tech. We all know how that day ended.
Now Mike Leach and his Air-Raid are in the Palouse. No team occupies that place in my heart where I love to hate like Wazzu. I watched Ryan Leaf end an undefeated start to Cal's season in 1996 and engineer the most demoralizing blowout of Cal in 1997 on his way to a Rose Bowl. While I am a huge Pac-12 fan and don't like to see any of the teams struggle for too long, WSU's floundering since Mike Price left felt just right. With Mike Leach in Pullman this year it seemed like that could all change.
No matter how much I want to turn away, I find myself tuning in for WSU's game each week because I want to figure out, to understand, this beast that has entered our conference: the Air-Raid.
The first thing you will notice when watching WSU is tho O-line splits. The splits refer to the distance between the offensive linemans' feet. Convention dictates large splits for a running play (larger holes for the running back to go through) and smaller splits for a passing play (less room for a pass rusher to fit through). Mike Leach is anything but conventional, look at the splits his linemen use: those aren't large, they are gigantic. This looks more like punt protection:
The exaggerated splits make the distance an edge rusher or a blitzer has to cover much longer. It also allows the quarterback much better vision of the field and puts the O-linemen "on an island" (or one on one with the pass rushers).
In this case two unblocked blitzers are unable to get to the quarterback before he can get the pass away.
How does Wazzu attach this aggressive defense? We know that Oregon State is blitzing, the result is that their pass coverage is Man-Free (man-to-man with a free safety deep). WSU has four receivers spread wide and a single back who won't stay in the backfield long.
At the top of the screen, the outside receiver runs a slant route while the slot receiver runs a corner route. (The running back in the flat is mismatched in WSU's favor against a defensive end, the type of coverage Leach likes to exploit on subsequent plays).
Wazzu's number one receiver is Marquess Wilson #86 and even though the Cougars like to distribute the ball to all of their receivers, Wilson is the one they want to target the most. On this play OSU is rushing three and dropping everyone else into zone coverage (there is a safety deep off the screen).
The running back runs a route to the flat while the slot receiver runs down the hash marks. This occupies all the defenders in the shallow zones. Wilson runs a Fly route, straight down the field as fast as he can.
Wilson blows by the corner covering the deep zone and the deep safety arrives too late to provide help "over the top" (which means that the safety was supposed to stay deeper than the deepest receiver to prevent a deep reception).
Washington State ran this route at least twice verses Oregon State (the second time the safety arrived before the pass but committed pass interference). I also saw the play at least once against BYU and EWU, it is a staple of the Air-Raid offense and we can expect to see it against Cal.
WSU has two quarterbacks who can execute the offense, dangerous receivers and even a little bit of a running game so how have teams managed to beat them? The answer is simple, get pressure on the quarterback. Washington State has three receivers split wide and one man in motion. OSU is showing blitz with three defenders, the rest are in Man-Free (the safety is again off the screen) and a linebacker is mirroring the motion man.
I am not sure what the pass protection is supposed to be, but the WSU left tackle blocks the edge blitzer and the left guard blocks the nose tackle allowing the defensive tackle into the backfield untouched. At this point he is the running back's responsibility.
The running back cannot get across the formation to block the D-lineman and the result is a sack.
OSU's coverage down the field was good and the only open receiver was the man in motion but the sack was so quick that there was no chance for Tuel to look for his safety valve.
BYU harrassed Jeff Tuel and EWU knocked him out of the game. Connor Halliday, a redshirt sophmore, is Wazzu's other quarterback and he has started most of the games this year, but he was injured in the Oregon game and pulled out of the Oregon State game (presumably due to ineffectiveness). The Bears have to get pressure on the WSU quarterback, either with the D-linemen or with blitzes. Mike Leach will look to exploit any defensive pattern that emerges so Clancy Pendergast is going to have to be creative.
The pressure is going to go both ways. Wazzu's defense is a gambling pressure based defense. When the pressure does come you can bet #89, senior linebacker Travis Long, is going to be part of it.
Notice the OSU O-line splits below, this is a very traditional formation for a passing play. Both inside backers are going to come on an A-Gap blitz (on either side of the center). The down linemen are going to rush directly at the guards to occupy them and the center has to choose one of the two linebackers to block. The running back and the tight end to the right of OSU's formation release into pass patterns. Both are picked up by man coverage, the safety on the tight end and the outside linebacker on the running back.
This is the best shot I have of the entire formation (the TV coverage missed the pre-snap look while on replay). On the left side of the formation OSU has trips receivers (trips = three) and WSU is locked in zone coverage on them. The inside receiver runs a pick play to allow the middle receiver (circled in light orange) to cross the formation. With the blitzing middle backers this guy should be uncovered but the outside backer showing blitz (circled in white) is faking the blitz and he drops into a shallow zone in the middle.
Sean Mannion rolls to his right away from the pressure and tries to throw his hot read crossing the middle of the field. It is a bad decision, all his receivers are covered and throwing across his body with Travis Long holding on to his legs results in a weak attempt right into the arms of the WSU defensive end.
Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about Mike Leach's 2004 Texas Tech team. I think it is a great insight into the man behind the Air Raid offense and just a great read.
Finally Bob Davie (ex-Notre Dame coach) write an ESPN article about how Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams were different.
The last note I want to talk about in regard to the WSU defense is a disturbing one. Players should be known for their positive impact on a game but one WSU defender is getting a reputation for Targeting defenseless receivers. Deone Bucannon, #20, made one of the most inexcusable illegal hits I have witnessed against EWU and was suspended by his team for half of the UNLV game. When he entered the UNLV game he was called again for a hit above the shoulders of a defenseless receiver. I have decided not to post GIFs of either of these plays. I call attention to this issue because for all the NCAA and NFL are doing to reduce the incidence of concussions, they have to do more. Last weekend we saw a concussion of Robert Griffin III where the Redskins medical staff held him out of the rest of the game, even after describing the concussion as "mild", but we also saw a hit on Robert Woods where he was motionless on the field and when he did get up he fell back down. In the USC game the officials flagged Utah for helmet to helmet contact but the SC medical staff allowed Woods to return to the game where, even though he passed the medical staff's quick concussion assessment, he obviously ran the wrong route in the end zone only two plays after his injury. Understanding of concussions has come a long way and continues to improve but it is obvious that the on-the-field application of standards is not uniform. It is up to the fans to hold the NFL, NCAA, Pac-12, Coaches, Medical Staffs and Players (and even High Schools) to a high standard and I hope you join me in doing so.
Washington State has struggled to begin the year. In the articles above it is clear that the Air Raid is really a set of about 25 plays run from various formations at high tempo all designed to confuse a defense. A decade ago this was revolutionary, but here on the West Coast it has become the norm. Is this why WSU hasn't put up the huge number of points the Air Raid is famous for? Did Michael Lewis spoil everything for Mike Leach like he did for Billy Beane? Or does Wazzu just not have the right personnel for Mike Leach's system. Great innovators like Bill Walsh were able to stay one step ahead, mediocre ones like Mike Martz showed diminishing returns. Which one will be Mike Leach's legacy?