Washington St Arizona St Football

Washington State coach Mike Leach signals for a touchdown on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Air Force and Washington State might seem like they approach football from opposite ends of the offensive spectrum, but that’s not the case.

The No. 24 Falcons, with their option-based offense, rank third in the nation in rushing and perennially in the top five in that category.

Washington State tops the country in passing yards behind a coach in Mike Leach, whose Air Raid attack utilizes four receivers and runs a variety of the run and shoot.

Those styles will collide Dec. 27 in the Cheez-It Bowl, when the Falcons (10-2) and Cougars (6-6) will meet at Chase Field in Phoenix in an 8:15 p.m. game.

As different as they appear, Leach said the principles he used when building his offense came from the same place as the offense former coaches like Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry installed at Air Force in the early 1980s. The Air Force attack has since evolved under coach Troy Calhoun and longtime offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen.

“I admire the option, and I always felt like our brand of football really kind of started with the wishbone, because what the wishbone always did such a good job of is distribution,” Leach told The Gazette. “You know, all the skill positions touch the ball. And then they’re pretty good at stretching the field side to side, and better at stretching it upfield than they’ve ever gotten credit for, because some of those pitches take place after they began to get up field.

“I feel like a lot of our space concepts came from the wishbone and the distribution, in particular, was something that we admired the most. And then in our case, it became how to do it. So then we hit our spots.”

The Cougars’ distribution has led to seven players gaining more than 500 yards from scrimmage this year. The Falcons have six players who have hit that mark. By comparison, the school’s in-state conference rivals – Washington and Colorado State — have combined for seven such players this year.

Leach, a 1983 BYU graduate who did not play college football, has said he tracked the Falcons from afar in their days of the Western Athletic Conference.

“I’ve always followed it,” he said. “Well, first of all, I’ve always followed it, one, because, you know, they’ve always been a high-achieving team. And so I think that alone commands attention. And then the other thing, you know, if I didn’t throw the ball, I would run the option.”

Calhoun, whose track record includes a stint as offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Houston Texans, heaped praise at the work Leach has done in his career on the offensive side.

“Mike has done a sensational job, even going back at Kentucky, even prior to that,” Calhoun said. “Some of the places where they were, that he’s just been incredible. He’s the one that truly launched Oklahoma back into, you know, such a prominent program. And the job that he did at both Texas Tech and then certainly, just the amazing job that they’ve done at Washington State.”

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