PULLMAN — When it became clear the Washington State football team would have a new coach, running back Max Borghi tweeted a smiling, closed-eyed emoji and a concise message: “Mood knowing I will be running more.”
It was a pretty safe prediction. Last season, the Cougars tallied 97 fewer rushes than any other team in the country. And the hiring of Nick Rolovich has done nothing to damage the credibility of Borghi’s forecast.
“He seems like a guy who wants to win football games,” Borghi said after Thursday’s news conference introducing Rolovich. “So he’s going to utilize his weapons no matter how he’s going to go schematically.”
Like predecessor Mike Leach, Rolovich likes to sling the ball around. But like almost every other college coach, he also sees some relevance in run-pass ratio. As the Cougars transition from Leach’s Air Raid offense to Rolovich’s run-and-shoot, the most noticeable change probably will be more rushes by Borghi and other backs.
Last season, Rolovich’s 10-5 Hawaii team ranked fifth in the county in passing yards but still ran 40 percent of the time and got 908 ground yards from Miles Reed.
It’s fair to expect vaguely comparable numbers next season for the Cougars.
“I think the roster, especially on the offensive side of the ball, has all the pieces we were trying to build to when we left Hawaii,” Rolovich said at the WSU news conference. “A lot of receivers, great depth in the O-line. As far as differences, I think the run-pass percentage will be different.
“I don’t care if we run every time; I don’t care if we pass it every time. I want to put it in the end zone. It’s not for style points for me. It’s about winning. If we win 14-10, fine. If we win 56-40 — there’s all types of ways to win football games.”
Borghi was hardly neglected last year as a sophomore and first-year starter.
The dynamic, quick-cutting back rushed for 817 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry, and led all running backs nationally with 86 receptions. In Leach’s introductory news conference at Mississippi State several days ago, he described tailoring his schemes with a view to getting the ball to Borghi.
“Sometimes you’ll have a real special player, like our running back this last year had an awful lot of yards,” he said. “If you don’t count the kickoff returns, he led the Pac-12 in yards. So if you’ve got a special player, you’re trying to get ball in his hand as many times as you can, and devise some ways to do it.”
That was Leach’s only specific reference to any of his 2019 Cougars, who finished 6-7 and made their sixth bowl appearance in his eight-year tenure.
Still, countless pundits and fans have questioned Leach’s insistence that offensive “balance” must be defined by the number of players who touch the ball as opposed to run-pass ratio.
As the critics point out, when stellar defenses or inclement weather have stifled the Cougs’ passing game, they’ve lacked the ability to adjust. That was the case this past season in losses to Utah (38-13), California (33-20), Washington (31-13) and Air Force (31-21).
The prospect of more running back carries wasn’t the only thing Borghi mentioned about his first impressions of Rolovich.
“I think coach Rolo is totally a players’ coach,” he said. “Obviously, (it’s) different than what we’re used to. He’s someone who wants to connect with every one of his players, no matter if you’re the starter or the scout guy. He obviously takes pride in learning everyone’s names. I can almost tell he’s more of a father figure type coach, rather than a ‘go through the motions’ type coach. He cares about us as men.”
Of course, Rolo and his new players still have a lot to learn about one another.
Borghi noticed something about Hawaii’s stats last year: The top running back made only three catches. That naturally would jump out at someone like Borghi, who chose the Cougars over schools like Stanford partly for the diverse ways they use their backs.
In fact, throws to the running backs were an insignificant aspect of the Warriors’ attack in three of Rolovich’s four seasons as head coach.
“So I’m definitely excited to see if he tweaks things,” Borghi said.
Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune or (208) 848-2290.