Cougars’ Leach says running backs are important

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 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.

Even though he doesn’t talk much, Mason has also become a team

leader.

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

dependable.”

But there is little doubt that the Cougars remain a pass-first

team as they 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 freshman 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 murderer’s row this year,” he said.

The team might have crumbled during a three-game, mid-season

losing streak when they were pounded by Oregon State, Oregon and

Arizona State, Leach said.

Instead, they 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.”