The third-down play that got away

Why did Cougs, masters of Air-Raid offense, elect to run in crucial situation



Head Coach Mike Leach, left, watches the game against the San Jose State Spartans from the sidelines Sept. 8 at Martin Stadium.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen reporter

It was the play that got away from WSU on Friday night.

Third-and-six on USC’s 21-yard line, down three points, a little less than two minutes to go and perhaps the most unthinkable play transpires. The Cougars hand it off for a gain of zero. The Air Raid offense — the offense revered for its ability to move the ball through the air — runs the ball on the most crucial play of the game.

Head Coach Mike Leach — the same Leach who eight minutes prior elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from USC’s eight-yard line with a chip shot field goal to take a two-point lead all but secured in his back pocket — chose to take three points and a shot at overtime instead of going for the win? After all the guts he showed on every fourth down conversion?

The play itself went haywire from the snap. Half the offensive line kicked back in pass protection while the other half began to run block. After the play senior left tackle Andre Dillard threw his hands up in the air. There had to be more to this play call, and sure enough there was.

Following the game, Leach was the first to take the podium per usual and had this to say about the play call.

“Well it was a play,” Leach said. “I mean in hindsight I wish it was a different play, but in hindsight I wish a lot of plays were different.”

Leach sounded just as disappointed as the rest of us about the decision to run the ball in that critical situation. As it turns out, in that particular situation it was not Leach’s play call. When graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew II took the podium we found out that it was he who checked down to a run play.

“That was all on me,” Minshew said. “That was really stupid and something I regret.”

A reporter clarified the play was a check down made by him, and Minshew confirmed it was his decision.

Reflecting on the play, everyone including Minshew would agree that running the ball in that situation was a bad idea. But there is something to be said about the way Minshew owned up to his mistake.

Since taking the field as the starter, Minshew’s leadership has been unquestionable. His teammates have raved about his charismatic presence and the way he showed up on the scene and hit the ground running.

As unfortunate as the circumstances were Friday night for WSU, Minshew’s response is precisely what makes him the leader that he is. Through thick and thin he will own up to the mistakes his offense makes just as he will praise his teammates for the plays that do go well. There is nothing more one can ask from a quarterback.

And if you’re frustrated with Minshew for making that call, consider the way his teammates rallied around the play call as a testament to what Minshew means to this team.

“I was obviously confident in the whole team that we were going to go out there and get the first down,” freshman running back Max Borghi said.

Then redshirt junior receiver Easop Winston Jr. came to the defense of his offense.

“We have faith in all our guys no matter whose hands we put the ball in,” Winston said. “We expect that we’re going to get the first down and do what we need to do to get in the end zone.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but there is nothing the Cougars can do about it now. But the way Minshew has the hearts of his teammates and fans alike is a good sign that this team will continue to take it one week at a time and bounce back sooner rather than later.