Like most defensive coaches in college football these days, Mel Tucker has gone against some sort of version of the “air raid” offense during his career.
This week, the Colorado head coach will see the real deal up close when he leads his Buffaloes (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) into Pullman, Wash., on Saturday for a battle with Washington State (3-3, 0-3). Kickoff is slated for 5:02 p.m. MT (TV: ESPNU).
“It’s the pure air raid,” Tucker said. “It’s not like a version of air raid; it’s the real air raid. So they really have it a down to a science.”
Cougars head coach Mike Leach is one of the originators of the air raid.
Leach earned his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University in 1983 and watched the Cougars, led by coach LaVell Edwards, put up monster numbers in the passing game for years.
A lot of those BYU concepts were adopted for the creation of the air raid, which was crafted by Hal Mumme and Leach when they coached together at Iowa Wesleyan College in the early 1990s, and then Valdosta State University and Kentucky. At each of those stops, Mumme was the head coach, with Leach as offensive coordinator.
Throughout his career as a head coach, at Texas Tech (2000-09) and Washington State (since 2012), Leach’s air raid offense has been one of the most prolific in college football.
“They’re just throwing the ball all over the lot,” Tucker said. “They run it some but (WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon) is back there and he’s slinging it. They’ve got receivers all over the place. (Gordon) knows how it works, so it puts a lot of pressure on your defense. It’s a different type of offense, certainly. And I give coach Leach credit; he believes in what he’s doing and no matter where he is, or who he’s got, he finds a way to move the ball and score points.”
Leach has resurrected the WSU program. In his first year, 2012, the Cougars were 3-9, marking their ninth consecutive season at .500 or worse. Since then, the Cougars have played in five bowls in six seasons and won a school-record 11 games last year.
Going into this week, the Cougars are trying to snap a three-game losing streak, but their offense has been humming along. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring (43.0 points per game) and total offense (538.7 yards per game).
Gordon leads the country with 435.3 passing yards per game – 76 more than anyone else.
“Coach Leach is obviously an outstanding coach, does a great job with offense and coaching the quarterbacks and they’re really good at what they do,” CU defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said. “The turnaround he’s made in that program is phenomenal and his players are well coached, they play with a lot of confidence and they know what they’re doing with the ball once they get it in their hands.”
This could be the toughest test of the year for a CU defense that’s had a rough season defending the pass. The Buffs are giving up 307.2 yards per game through the air and rank 117th nationally in pass efficiency defense, with opposing quarterbacks posting a 158.51 rating.
With most quarterbacks, the key to slowing them down is applying pressure. That’s not so easy this week. The Cougars have allowed just six sacks, which is remarkably low for a team that’s thrown 315 passes.
“The ball comes out so fast,” Buffs’ defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. “It’s like he catches it and releases a lot of times.”
For the Buffs, who are relying on several young players on the defensive line, there’s a fine line between putting pressure on the quarterback, but making sure they are sound in coverage.
“The thing about it is, they lull you to sleep and then hit you with the run,” Brumbaugh said. “So what you just got to do is focus on your keys, focus on doing your job. I think that’s the biggest thing with the whole team: just do your job.”
Even then, that may not be enough. Gordon has thrown for at least 420 yards five times in six games, and the Cougars have scored 30-plus points in 14 of their last 19 games.
“We’ll have a big challenge on our hands this week,” Summers said.
Quarterback Steven Montez, linebacker Nate Landman and tight end Beau Bisharat have been named captains this week for CU. Montez has been named a captain a team-high four times, while Landman has earned the honor three times. … CU’s running backs have combined for zero fumbles in 201 carries this season.