Forget the Air Raid, Mike Leach has learned to love the run game

Twenty years ago as an offensive coordinator at Valdosta State running Hal Mumme's Air Raid offense, Washington State coach Mike Leach never imagined that he'd someday be running an offense that ran the ball more than one-third of its downs.

Even today, he's surprised when he hears the number: 36.4 percent of his plays have been rushing.

Little by little the Air Raid offense is beginning to fly a bit lower and find more production on the ground.

"You have to do it all the time," Leach said regarding his offensive evolution. "It's almost the definition of the profession. … The most important thing is execution, but you're trying to select what to execute based on your personnel, your space and the situation. And the biggest part of the situation is the defense and what they're doing."

Coming into the 2016 season Leach realized that his personnel would favor a bit more of a run than in his recent years at Washington State. His offensive line was improved and his roster boasted three capable backs -- Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks.

But more importantly, over the past few seasons as more offenses across the country have taken up characteristics of the Air Raid or the Air Raid entirely (and as Pac-12 teams have becoming more adjusted to facing it with both Leach and Cal coach Sonny Dykes in the conference) defenses have become more adept at defending it.

"Defenses are constantly changing, constantly evolving. … You have to be too," Leach said. "That doesn't mean you break your package. If you have a good package that covers the whole field and gets the ball in everybody's hands, then you have to select the solutions that you think address the problems."

And the solution that Leach has selected includes keeping the ball in the hands of Marrow, James and Wicks more often. So far this season, the Cougars have rushed the ball on 36 percent of downs, up from 28 percent a season ago (and 24 percent during the 2013 and 2014 seasons).

Though it might seem like a bit of a misnomer to call that kind of a split "balanced," it truly is for a Leach offense. The last time one of his offenses was this balanced was during the 2008 and 2009 Texas Tech seasons. The Red Raiders went a memorable 20-6 over that two-season span while rushing on 32 percent of downs in both seasons.

His running backs' 3.9 yards per carry is the best for any Leach offense since the 2008 season (4.8 yards per carry), but it's the scoring that seems to have been most impacted by the pick up in carries.

Through seven games this year Washington State has scored 17 rushing touchdowns to 19 passing touchdowns. At this rate, the Cougars will score more rushing touchdowns in 2016 than they did from 2012 to 2015 combined.

Opposing coordinators -- which have been a key part of the cause for Leach's offensive shift -- such as Oregon State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune said that he has been impressed with the way that Leach has integrated the run.

"When they're successful in two areas, it's always much, much harder to defend," Clune said. "You can't key in on one thing or the other. … They use three backs and they all run hard -- that's a huge piece for their offense."

Washington State's ability to effectively use the run this season has kept defenses on their toes and provided valuable scoring as well. After all, it's not very often in a Leach offense that it's a running back who leads offensive players (not including quarterbacks) in scoring. But this season the honor of leading scorer goes to Wicks, not a receiver like Gabe Marks or Tavares Martin Jr.

After the Cougars beat Oregon in Pullman, scoring six rushing touchdowns, Leach joked about the emergence of the run game in his offense.

"One of these days before I retire I'm going to throw it 100 percent one game and run it 100 percent the next and tell everybody were balanced," he said.

But the truth is, even without that, as the Cougars' pass-run ratio comes closer to 60-40, Leach's Air Raid is looking far more balanced than it ever has.