The Washington State Cougars and head coach Mike Leach are Air Raid staples in today’s college football landscape. Leach is the father of the Air Raid scheme, and has used it to great offensive success at both Texas Tech and Washington State. A few concepts form the backbone of the offensive scheme, notably four verticals, mesh, and Y-cross. I’m not focused on those plays here in my scheme preview (at least not primarily), because they’ve been analyzed well by others before me. I highly recommend clicking the links above on each of those concepts, as Mark Schofield breaks them down far better than I could here.
So to get ready for the season, know that those concepts (and plenty of others) form some of the basis of Washington State’s scheme. They’re also quite into screen plays, which I broke down in this write-up of Cal’s screen game under Air Raid disciple Sonny Dykes.
But, looking at some of the other plays they run, which include variations of base Air Raid concepts as well as plays from other coaches and systems, I noticed a trend. Mike Leach incorporated and relied heavily on the dig route to open things up on offense. A dig route is a deep in route, usually run between 12 and 15 yards downfield, though Leach would sometimes call for shorter in-cutting routes as well. Leach and quarterback Luke Falk would call up plays that specifically looked to the dig route as the key option on the play, but often times it was used to occupy defenders and create opportunities for other routes to come open.
Paired with Mesh Concept
One common route combination, not only for the Cougars but also for many teams across the college and pro games, is tagging a dig route over the middle just beyond a mesh concept. This creates a nice hi-low read similar to the drive concept (surprise, surprise, another Mark Schofield glossary entry). The drive concept is a high-low concept that consists of a dig route and a shallow crosser underneath.
A basic look at how to design this concept can be seen below, from a document detailing the variations of the mesh concept that the University of Kentucky ran under Mike Leach.
The dig here is a perfect route to pair with the mesh concept, as it stresses defenses vertically while the mesh stretches out defenses horizontally. If the linebackers bite up on the mesh concept underneath the dig should be open in front of the safety for a big play over the middle. If the linebackers sink, it’s the standard mesh concept read, which can be seen on the standard mesh concept below, from Leach’s 1999 playbook with the University of Oklahoma. Obviously with a dig route in the play the reads will change, but this is how Leach installed the bare bones of the mesh play.
For a look at how the dig route and the mesh concept pair up together, here’s an example from Washington State’s win against the Oregon Ducks.
Washington State comes out in 10 offensive personnel and motions into a trips left formation. Jamire Calvin (#6) is the motion man going across the formation and he’ll run a quick smoke route after the play starts. The left outside receiver (whose number isn’t visible on the play) runs a drag route along with X receiver Tay Martin (#1) – these two drag routes form the mesh concept. Meanwhile, slot receiver Renard Bell (#81) runs the dig route over the top of the mesh concept.
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Falk is able to find Bell here for a big gain and a first down thanks to the mesh concept/dig route pairing Leach designed.
Mesh is one of the staples of the Washington State Air Raid passing attack. Both linebackers to the offense’s left, Troy Dye (#35) and Blake Rugraff (#53), see the mesh concept developing underneath and step up to take away option for Falk. That leaves Bell a lot of room to work the dig route in the intermediate seam of Oregon’s zone coverage.
The dig route was a simple addition to the mesh concept, and one that likely didn’t take a ton of install. However, it’s a really nice way to punish linebackers for reading and reacting to the mesh concept and forcing them to respect the intermediate passing game.
Washington State really likes to employ the seam/dig combination from a multitude of formations on offense to create big plays on offense. It’s essentially a high-low read at a deeper part of the field, as defenders can leave the dig open if they guard the seam route or they can leave themselves vulnerable to the vertical route if they bite on the dig. In many ways, this route combination is similar to the Mills concept, which is explained below.
The Mills concept was popularized by Steve Spurrier at Florida, but is a very common concept throughout all levels of football. It combines a dig route with a post route over the dig to put the safety in conflict. If the safety overplays the dig route the post route should be open deep in the middle of the field. Conversely, as we just saw, there’s a lot of room in the intermediate area for a dig route to get open if the safety decides to stick deep with the post route.
Rather than a post route, Washington State likes to utilize the seam route, but much of the read structure would be similar on this play compared to the Mills concept. The New England Patriots called this basic route combination the Indigo concept in 2003 under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, whose playbook can be seen below:
An example of the Cougars running the seam/dig concept can be seen from their game against the USC Trojans. They use a seam/skinny post route rather than a hard post route, but the goal is the same as the Mills concept. They’re trying to attack the middle of the field safety with the dig route to open the deep seam/post up for a splash play. The beauty of it, though, is the safety plays the seam route, the dig route is run at first down distance and is a great route over the middle.
Washington State is in 10 personnel again, with two receivers to the left in an inverted slot formation. The outside receiver, Tavares Martin Jr. (#8), runs the dig route, after letting slot receiver Renard Bell (#81) run the seam route downfield.
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Again, the dig route pays dividends for Washington State. The seam route occupies Hawkins in the deep part of the field and forces Harris to ignore the dig for a split second – which is all Martin Jr. and QB Luke Falk needed to make a connection for a first down on a big 3rd and 10.
The mesh concept and mills concept are just two of many ways the Washington State Cougars incorporate the dig route into their offense. The dig route is a great way to attack defenses with high-low concepts at any part of the field. With looks like the mesh concept paired with the dig route, the dig serves to stretch defenses backwards and can really punish linebackers for reading and attacking Washington State’s go-to mesh concept. Conversely, the dig can serve as the “underneath” option in a seam/dig combination or Mills concept that tries to bait defenses into overplaying the intermediate route in favor of deeper routes down the middle.
The dig, as can be seen in a few of the plays above, can obviously be the target and yard-gaining route in many scenarios. However, it also is a great way to stress defenses vertically to open up things in the deep or short areas of the field, which is exactly what Mike Leach is looking for.