Perhaps more so than any coach in the country, Washington State’s Mike Leach trusts his offense. He has spent 30 years developing it, fine-tuning it and using it to put up some of the most jaw-dropping statistics that college football has ever seen.
This season is no different. The Cougars have scored at least 30 points in all six games — one shy of the school record for consecutive 30-point games in a season (2001) — and have passed for more yards than any team in the country (2,352). Leach’s starting quarterback, fifth-year senior Luke Falk, is nine touchdown passes away from breaking former USC quarterback Matt Barkley’s conference record (116) and is very much a part of the Heisman Trophy discussion with the Cougars undefeated and ranked No. 8 in the AP poll.
Right up there with Leach’s predilection for the pass is his affinity for going for it on fourth down. During his first five seasons in Pullman, the Cougars went for it on fourth down 162 times in 63 games. It was the second-highest total in college football during that span, behind only Baylor. For followers of the Never Punt philosophy, Leach is their messiah.
Or at least he used to be.
Early in the fourth quarter of the Cougars’ 33-10 win at Oregon on Saturday, they lined up for a third-and-5 at the Ducks’ 41-yard line, leading by 20. A Falk pass fell incomplete. The failure to get the first down prompted a situation in which Leach’s decision is usually restricted to what offensive play to call. They were on the plus side of the field, needing 5 yards with an offense that averages over 6 yards per play.
Punt? Not Leach. No way.
Except, of course, he did. Mitchell Cox punted and the Ducks started the next drive at their own 12.
“We wanted to change the field because they had trouble getting points the more the game went on,” said Leach, sounding more like Stanford coach David Shaw.
The Cougars didn’t go for it on fourth down once against Oregon. They punted seven times. This wasn’t a one-off, either. Wazzu has gone for it on fourth down just six times this season, a total that ranks tied for No. 87 in the country.
Leach, it seems, finally has a defense he trusts as much as his offense.
“We’ve been punting it pretty well, so that, too,” Leach said.
But it’s mainly about the defense.
In 2014, the year before defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrived in Pullman, the Cougars allowed 2.53 points per drive, which ranked 107th in the country. This season, that number is down to 1.24, No. 18 nationally.
Last year, WSU allowed 20.3 first downs per game and allowed opponents to convert on third down 39.9 percent of the time. Through six games this season, it is allowing 14.7 first downs per game and a third-down conversion rate of 24.7 percent.
In 2015, the Cougars forced 20 three-and-outs and had just 29 last year. They’ve already forced 21 this season.
“They’re very physical up front. They’re explosive,” said California coach Justin Wilcox, whose team will host the Cougars on Friday night. “They do a really nice job in the back end, too. They mix things up. They go from odd fronts to even fronts. They’ll pressure you and drop into coverage. They do a really nice job of changing things up and the guys are playing really hard and confident and winning a lot of one-on-ones.”
Four years ago in this game, Cal won 60-59 despite WSU quarterback Connor Halliday’s single-game FBS record 734 yards passing. A missed 19-yard field goal in the final minute sealed Wazzu’s fate that night in a game that prominently featured the team’s defensive shortcomings.
Those days are over.
Not only has the fourth-down, risk-reward equation changed because of a significantly improved defense, it has also been affected by the development of kicker Erik Powell, who has been one of the nation’s best so far. He’s 12-of-13 on the season on field goal attempts and 4-for-4 on kicks of 40 yards or longer, including a career high of 52 yards. Last season, he was just 9-of-15 and only 1-of-3 from 40-plus.