PULLMAN — Nobody runs the ball as little as coach Mike Leach’s Washington State football team.
That’s not just a widely-held opinion about one of the nation’s most pass-centric coaches. This season, it’s a statistical fact.
The Cougars have logged 142 carries through their first seven games, fewer than any other FBS team, ranking 119th in the nation — next to last — in both rushing yards (284) and yards per carry (2.0).
And yet running-backs coach Jim Mastro said Thursday that, “We are getting production out of our run game.”
He’s not wrong. For some reason, the NCAA still counts lost sack yardage against a team’s rushing total, and the Cougars have again been one of the worst teams in the country at protecting the quarterback.
Opponents have sacked either Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday 24 times this season, resulting in a net loss of a whopping 172 yards.
Subtract that lost yardage from WSU’s rushing totals — as well as Tuel and Halliday’s overall rushing totals — and the Cougars’ running backs are averaging a shade more than 4 yards a carry. Not outstanding, but not nearly as dire as the rankings suggest.
“We’re getting a little more precise with it,” Leach said. “We’ve cycled through a bunch of people. I think that our biggest thing is being precise and being physical up front.”
They’ll likely continue cycling at Stanford on Saturday.
Remember Marcus Mason? He flashed potential as a freshman last season with 153 yards on 19 carries in four games, bolstered by a 65-yard touchdown run in the season opener against Idaho State.
Mason hasn’t received a single carry this season as a sophomore. But with starter Teondray Caldwell sidelined this week after taking a blow to the head against California, and Leon Brooks not practicing with an apparent injury to his right foot or ankle, Mason looks to be WSU’s No. 2 option behind senior Carl Winston.
Bennett Bontemps, a junior receiver, also has been practicing at running back this week in case he’s needed.
Mastro said WSU’s main priority continues to be developing its passing game, which ranks ninth nationally in yards, but just 98th in efficiency.
Against a Cardinal team that has been stout against the run — it’s fourth in yards per carry allowed at 2.48 — establishing a ground game might be tougher than usual.
“It depends what they do, it depends what they give you,” Leach said.