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Pass-happy Cougars glad to be in bowl

UNM grounds-crew members Leroy Tapia, left, and Will Gonzales paint the end zone at University Stadium in preparation for Saturday's New Mexico Bowl. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)
UNM grounds-crew members Leroy Tapia, left, and Will Gonzales paint the end zone at University Stadium in preparation for Saturday's New Mexico Bowl. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)
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SPOKANE, Wash. – Washington State coach Mike Leach disputes the notion that running backs are underutilized in his Air Raid offense.

Washington State may run the ball less than half as much as the Cougars’ opponents, but the running backs catch a lot of passes.

“They are the best athletes out there, with rare exceptions,” Leach said this week as Washington State (6-6) prepared to face Colorado State (7-6) in Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl. “You have to get running backs the football.”

This season, the Cougars’ ground game – led by Marcus Mason, Teondray Caldwell and Jeremiah Laufasa – accounted for 704 yards on 224 carries. Opponents amassed 2,210 yards on 500 carries.

But those three players combined to catch 83 passes for 542 yards.

Mason, a junior, is a real dual threat. He led the team in rushing with 424 yards, on an average of 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 49 passes for 372 yards.

He says he doesn’t mind the lack of rushing attempts.

“Not really,” he told the Journal this week. “I just care that I do what I can, as long as I can play well enough to help the team win. I never complain about amount of carries or anything like that. That doesn’t really matter. I’m more of a team player, so I don’t care about my individual stats. I just want to help the team out.”

And Leach says he does just that – in more ways than one.

“He is a guy you could lean on,” Leach said. “He’s very dependable.”

Besides catching passes, Mason and the other WSU running backs have plenty of other duties in the pass-happy offense. Like picking up the blitz, something that gives many running backs – even at the NFL level – fits.

Mason says: “It’s just a matter of doing your job. If you’re required to pick up (a blitz), you pick it up. If not, you have a route to catch a pass. We just try to do whatever we can to help the offense.”

And there is little doubt that offense remains pass-first, as the Cougars head to their first bowl game since 2003.

This season they threw the ball 698 times, completing 433 passes for 4,374 yards and 30 touchdowns. Record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday did most of that work.

“He’s finally started enough games to develop into a really good college quarterback,” Leach said of Halliday, a junior who shared the starter duties with Jeff Tuel last season.

Halliday’s efforts started at the end of last season, when he took a leadership role in offseason conditioning.

“He immersed himself in the weight room and enthusiastically committed to it,” Leach said.

Other players followed.

Leadership is important for the Cougars, who remain primarily a team of freshmen and sophomores in Leach’s second season at the helm.

It was particularly important because the Cougars played one of the toughest schedules in the nation – Leach contends it was the toughest – including games against Auburn, Stanford, Oregon, Southern California and Arizona State.

“We went through murderers’ row this year,” he said.

The team might have crumbled during a three-game, midseason losing streak when it was pounded by Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State, Leach said.

Instead, the Cougars rallied to win two of their final three games to qualify for a bowl.

“We improved each week,” Leach said. “Nobody took their eye off the pass.”

Qualifying for a bowl game is important to a program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003. First there are the extra practices to prepare for the game, Leach said. It is also an aid to recruiting.

“Extra practices are way more important than people realize,” Leach said.

Leach took Texas Tech to 10 consecutive bowl games during his decade as coach there.

He said the challenges at Texas Tech, in remote Lubbock, are not that different from the challenges at remote Pullman.

In fact, it is easier to fly into nearby Spokane than it was to fly into Lubbock, Leach said. And being in the Pac-12 helps Washington State recruit in the huge and fertile Southern California market.

“Every (football player) in Los Angeles has heard of Washington State,” Leach said. “We have an identity in that location.”

The Journal’s Mark Smith contributed to this story.

 

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