LEWISTON — Lightning jagged through dark skies in the distance as Mike Leach spoke with reporters on Sunday afternoon, the Washington State coach answering questions about the Cougars’ first scrimmage of preseason camp at Sacajawea Junior High.
The clouds were ominous. But this time, WSU’s performance was not.
Quarterbacks — five of them — combined to complete 68 percent of their passes, four touchdowns among them. There were no turnovers. There was room for running backs to run more often than there wasn’t.
In other words: Leach’s Air Raid, Pullman edition, is starting to look the way it’s supposed to. It didn’t for much of last season, when WSU’s pass efficiency was bad and its rushing offense was worse.
“There’s a couple plays I’d like to have over but I thought it was crisp execution (for) this time of year,” Leach said after WSU ran about 70 plays. “Defense threw a lot of stuff out there, so overall pretty good because we had two units on the offensive line play pretty well.”
Connor Halliday, the junior quarterback, took every snap with the No. 1 offense and completed 13 of his 20 pass attempts — 65 percent — for 117 yards and two touchdowns, including an impressive 34-yard scoring toss to freshman receiver River Cracraft on a scramble to his right.
It was no broken play. The Cougars practice scramble drills on a regular basis, with receivers running to designated spots on the field when they see the quarterback flushed from the pocket. Halliday pointed to a spot near the right pylon, and Cracraft beat his defender there and hauled in the throw.
“Everybody has a certain spot where they need to be on the field when I do roll right or roll left,” Halliday said, “so we’ve taken huge steps in that.”
Coaches and players also say they’ve taken huge steps in the running game, though it wasn’t much on display Sunday as running backs accounted for only 10 of WSU’s 17 rushes, and quarterback scrambles and sacks made up the rest.
Still, there were signs of life. Leon Brooks hit a hole for an 8-yard carry. Freshman Gerard Wicks rushed for 18 yards by beating the No. 3 defense to the sideline, and freshman Jamal Morrow had a 13-yard carry on the first play after freshman quarterback Tyler Bruggman connected with receiver Vince Mayle for a 62-yard touchdown.
Leach admitted that he “would have liked to have gotten more (runs) in. Our guys are a little tricky on that. You’ve got to pick your opportunities. They’ll load the box up. But the ones we did have were pretty good.”
There were still some inconsistencies that will gnaw at Leach a bit, such as what offensive line coach Clay McGuire described as “sloppy” play by his first-team group.
“I was really pleased with our 2s,” McGuire said. “The guys that were running with the second group I thought played real well. I thought they out-performed the 1s.”
And WSU’s success on shorter passes was spotty. Darryl Monroe made the most emphatic stop of the day, as he drove Teondray Caldwell into the ground after he caught a pass from Halliday that resulted in an 8-yard loss. Damante Horton had a similar hit when Marcus Mason caught a pass in the backfield and lost a yard. The defense also recorded five total sacks, four of them by the third-team defense against the third-team offense. Junior linebacker Ivan McLellan had two of those.
The third-teamers played more snaps than either the first or second teams. Leach said that was because “first of all, we had time to. Second of all, some of them are kind of doing some good things and just kind of checking them out, what we have. We’ve put them in and out of drills, but this is the first time it’s been live.”
Sunday marked the end of WSU’s stay in Lewiston. The Cougars returned to Pullman afterward, and will have meetings today but won’t practice. They’ll return to Rogers Field and Martin Stadium on Tuesday.