AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson has seen nearly every type of offense imaginable in his 30-plus years of coaching.
No system is an island. When coaches see something they like, they borrow the concepts to incorporate it into their own scheme. Because of that, Auburn’s defensive coordinator didn’t have a problem with people who want to label both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s systems as “spread” attacks despite their differing ideologies.
“The spread to me is three or four wide receivers on the field at one time and tempo,” Johnson said. “There are all different flavors. (Leach) wants to throw the ball more; Gus wants to run the ball more. What we've practiced against with our own offense in some respects will prepare us very well for what we're going to see.”
Johnson said the Tigers will probably end up playing “two or three teams” this season that share some similarities with the Cougars. No team is as heavily reliant on the passing game as the Cougars, though. In 12 games last season, Washington State attempted 624 passes, which translates to exactly 52 per contest.
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“There’s no question about it — he loves to throw the football,” Johnson said of Leach. “If you allow him to establish the running back, you're in for a long day. You can't just take a pass-defense approach and forget about the run. They have an offensive line that's greatly improved. They're good players. I think their running game is going to be more effect this year. It's something you can't ignore.”
It won’t be the first time Leach and Johnson have squared off. In 1997, Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky while Johnson served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Wildcats defeated the Crimson Tide 40-34 in overtime, Kentucky’s first victory in the series since 1922.
Over time, Johnson has seen how Leach’s scheme has evolved.
“They ran a lot more two-back (formations) back then,” he said. “Just as wide open, a lot of screens, a lot of scatting the backs, free releasing them. They can line up in two-back or one-back, and by the snap of the ball, it's almost an empty set. They're checking out of there.”
On that same token, though, Washington State will have to contend with Auburn’s running game, which boasts a plethora of options in the backfield. Ironically, Leach said he was more worried when the Tigers take to the air given what he’s seen from quarterback Nick Marshall.
“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically),” Leach said. “He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy. He’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”
Defensively, the Cougars will run out of multiple fronts and myriad coverages, so much so that Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday.
“It's the first game,” he said. “You're not real sure what the other team is going to do. We've got to be ready for whatever they throw at us and anything they could do. With us starting a new quarterback, you'd expect that. With them having (so many starters) back on the same defense with the same coordinator, I think they'd have the full arsenal of tactics that we've seen from them in the past.”
And their 3-9 record didn’t belie how competitive the Cougars were last season, Malzahn said. During film study, he saw how Washington State played Oregon, which ended the year ranked No. 2, to a near-draw in the first half before the Ducks pulled away for a 51-26 victory. The Cougars were even closer against Stanford, losing 24-17 to a Cardinals team that finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll last year.
“They're capable, even last year, of playing good football,” Malzahn said. “I think sometimes they got behind and it kind of snowballed on them, but we're really expecting a much-improved team.”
One thing is certain: Both teams are committed to snapping the ball as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Malzahn wouldn’t rule out possibly slowing things down if needed.
That would be the option of last resort, though.
“It just depends on what gives you the best chance of winning,” he said. “We'll see how it unfolds.”