HOUSTON – Friday’s matchup pitting Washington State against Houston will feature two coaches with an undying commitment to spread offense schemes and the ideology that the best way to stretch a defense is by moving the ball through the air, attacking the width of the football field as much as the length of it, and forcing the opponent to make tough plays in open space against quick, cunning athletes.
The spread offense, tried-and-tested at every level of football, is so effective even one of the men tasked with stopping it Friday night at NRG Stadium considers himself an advocate — much as it may be a thorn in his side.
“That’s why people should run the spread offense, is you get the ball to people in space and you make people be good tacklers,” WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
“It’s brought back an athlete to the game. A lot of times those 6-(foot)-3, 6-4 kids that thought they were basketball players and didn’t want to play football because all they do is run out there and block. Now you’ve brought those guys back because of all the balls in the air and all the balls being thrown.”
While much of the pregame buzz around WSU (2-0) vs. Houston (1-1) in the Advocare Texas Kickoff has focused on the relationship between head coaches Mike Leach of WSU and Dana Holgorsen of Houston, the final score could be determined by how well each coach’s defensive coordinator has prepared.
For WSU, the most pressing challenge will be the one presented by quarterback D’Eriq King. When Hologorsen relocated this offseason after eight years at West Virginia, the longtime Air Raid disciple modified the offense to suit King, who’s as versatile as you can get at the QB position.
King passed for 36 touchdowns and ran for 14 last season to set an AAC record. Had the Houston native not been sidelined with an injury that kept him out 2½ games, he would’ve had a chance at Colt Brennan’s FBS record of 63.
The Cougars aren’t foolish enough to say they’re ready for everything King might throw at them, but they believe an edge can be gained by facing a variation of the spread offense every day at practice.
“It’s nothing we’re not used to,” WSU safety Daniel Isom said. “We go against the Air Raid offense every week, especially during spring, fall. We’re used to getting the ball thrown at us pretty much all practice, so nothing really changes for us.”
Claeys believes WSU benefits from facing a spread offense in practice and explained why that’s better than going up against a two-back, multiple tight end set, even though that would help the Cougars against teams employing that formation.
“It’s a lot better to practice against a spread all the time then go play somebody else rather than the opposite,” he said. “You play somebody with two backs and two tight ends and then you go to the spread and as I say, theirs is unique because a lot more running game, quarterback-designed run, because of who they have back there. But we’ve spent a lot of time on it and that’ll be a big key to the game.”
Repping against the Air Raid doesn’t always lead to stopping it, though, and Houston’s defense is still a work in progress under first-year coordinator Joe Cauthen. Whereas WSU will have to contain a quarterback who’s just as capable with his legs as his arm, Houston has the unenviable task of slowing one of the country’s most efficient passers in redshirt senior Anthony Gordon.
Gordon’s completion percentage (81) ranks fourth nationally. He’s second in passing yards per game (442) and tied for first in passing touchdowns (nine) through two weeks. Taking away Gordon’s top receivers doesn’t mean taking away the corps as a whole. Eight players, including running back Max Borghi, have caught touchdowns for WSU and five are already up to 100-plus receiving yards on the season.
“It’s just true, he’s going to throw for a gazillion yards and he’s going to have receivers in the right spot, his O-line’s going to be nasty up front, protect,” Holgorsen said earlier this week in a news conference.
The idea was also floated to Holgorsen that facing the Air Raid in practice could be helpful for his defense. Perhaps, but if it also benefits WSU, do the two just cancel each other out?
“I don’t know,” Holgorsen said. “If there is, who benefits? So I don’t know.”
There’s only one way to find out.