PULLMAN – Washington State coach Jake Dickert acknowledged the oddly familiar nature of his team’s nonconference schedule.
“Crazy scenarios all the way,” he said Monday of WSU’s first three games of the season.
In Week 1, the Cougars played host to their neighbors from Idaho. Dickert faced his former co-worker: Vandals coach Jason Eck.
In Week 2, Dickert returned to his home state. He was supported by hundreds of friends and family members as WSU took down his childhood team, the Wisconsin Badgers.
In Week 3, the Cougars (2-0) will square off against a Colorado State team that shares ideologies and strategies – and has plenty of coaching connections – with WSU’s program.
“The schemes on both sides of the ball are very similar to what we play,” CSU coach Jay Norvell said earlier this week during a news conference.
The Cougars employ an Air Raid offense and a 4-2-5 defense that prides itself on speed, resilience and forcing turnovers. The Rams (0-2) also field an Air Raid system and a 4-2-5 defense that preaches ball-hawking effort and emphasizes the same strategy as WSU: “Bend but don’t break,” Dickert said.
“It’s like playing a reflection in the mirror this week.”
The Cougars will entertain the Rams at 2 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field. WSU is a 16-point favorite in its second matchup with CSU. There isn’t much on-field background between these two programs, but the Cougars and Rams know each other well.
Several WSU coaches have history competing alongside and against CSU staffers.
Cougars defensive coordinator Brian Ward served in the same role over the past two seasons at Nevada under coach Norvell – the first-year head coach at CSU. WSU support staffers Trent Greene and Jack Ray also worked with the Wolf Pack under Norvell.
After accepting the Rams’ top job in December, Norvell hired Freddie Banks to coordinate his defense. Banks, Ward and Dickert all come from the “same family of coaches,” Norvell said.
“We share a lot of ideas in this defense,” Dickert added.
Banks played cornerback at North Dakota State in the late 2000s. Dickert and Ward were Bison assistants at the time, working with defensive backs. All three began to shape their defensive principles under former longtime NDSU coach Craig Bohl.
Banks rejoined Ward at Nevada in 2020. While coaching Wolf Pack DBs, Banks learned Ward’s system. Two years later, Banks installed a similar scheme at CSU.
“They play the same style of defense that we play,” Norvell said.
Asked about CSU’s defensive tendencies, WSU slotback Lincoln Victor echoed Dickert.
“It’s like looking in the mirror,” he said, noting the parallels between the teams’ secondary coverages. “It’s the same defense.”
WSU center Konner Gomness feels especially prepared for Saturday’s game.
“They’re pretty much our defensive front,” he said. “It’s nice, because we’re seeing it all the time. We’ve worked it from spring to fall camp, so we’re pretty excited. It’s mostly the same calls.”
Dickert and first-year WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris – a disciple of eight-year Cougars coach Mike Leach – installed a balanced version of the Air Raid system this offseason. Morris was a receiver for Leach’s Texas Tech teams of the mid-2000s and spent the 2012 season as a receivers coach for Leach’s Cougars.
Norvell has long admired the art of passing offense. His fascination for the Air Raid grew as he ascended the coaching ladder. When Norvell landed his first head coaching gig in 2017 at Nevada, he sought out an Air Raid expert to coordinate his Wolf Pack offense. Norvell chose Matt Mumme.
The two supervised the Air Raid over the past five seasons at Nevada. They installed the system at CSU this off,season, changing the Rams’ identity from ground-and-pound to air-it-out.
Mumme is the son of Air Raid pioneer Hal Mumme, who developed the offense with Leach in the 1980s and ’90s. Matt Mumme played QB in the late 1990s at Kentucky under coach Hal Mumme and OC Leach, who is the third-year coach at Mississippi State.
“What Mike Leach runs at Mississippi State will, at the base, look exactly like what Jay Norvell and Matt Mumme have brought to Colorado State this season,” according to a feature article published this spring by CSU’s athletic department.
Norvell’s Nevada offense passed on 63% of its plays last season. The Wolf Pack’s aerial attack was one of the most productive in the nation (4,511 yards, 38 touchdowns). Nevada finished the season 23rd nationally in scoring offense (36 points per game). Norvell didn’t bring his entire Nevada staff to Fort Collins, but he asked Mumme, offensive line coach Bill Best and wide receivers coach Chad Savage to come along.
Fundamentally, the goal of the Air Raid offense is to distribute the ball to playmakers in space. The Cougars have been most efficient this year in the quick game. WSU uses tempo to its advantage, and quarterback Cameron Ward splits the touches between a handful of receivers. WSU’s system enjoys more versatility than Leach’s Air Raid. It uses the ground game and shifts formations often. It starts with a four-receiver set, but sometimes features five-wide sets, or perhaps a tight end – or two.
Norvell’s version of the Air Raid also includes tight ends and seeks to get its tailbacks involved, but it relies more on its passing game and looks for deep completions.
“We really stress the vertical passing game,” Norvell told CBS Sports’ Jim Rome this offseason. “We love big receivers. We love guys that can stretch the field and run deep. We always want our quarterback to look down the field first.”
Dickert has experience coaching against Norvell’s Air Raid. He spent two seasons as a safeties coach at Mountain West member Wyoming before becoming the Cowboys’ DC in 2019. Dickert’s Wyoming defense dominated Nevada in a 31-3 win in 2019. WSU edge coach A.J. Cooper and defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis were assistants with Dickert at Wyoming.
“So, we’re very familiar with each other,” Dickert said. “They’re explosive down the field. It’s very much an Air Raid passing offense.
“It’s stuff we see in practice each and every day. But they’re using a tight end quite a bit … and they do a lot of different things to create some run game and some play-action pass game. It’s a little different. It’s a modernized version of it and they do it their own way. But they’re going to push the ball down the field. You watch Nevada last year – explosive plays everywhere.”
WSU’s offense is still finding a rhythm and performed to mixed results in its first two games. But the Cougars have found more offensive success than the Rams early this season.
CSU is playing with a shorthanded offensive line and has surrendered 16 sacks – the most in the nation. The Rams were trounced at No. 4 Michigan to open their season and their protection couldn’t hold up in a 34-19 loss to Middle Tennessee State last weekend. CSU is averaging 1 yard per carry and has had just one reliable receiver emerge so far: Tory Horton, a Nevada transfer and one of the top receivers in the Mountain West.
Seven Wolf Pack players followed Norvell to CSU. Two Nevada standouts followed Brian Ward to WSU – star linebacker Daiyan Henley and senior strong safety Jordan Lee. Henley was part of Norvell’s first Nevada recruiting class and Lee joined the Reno school a year later in 2018. Henley played receiver in Norvell’s Air Raid for the first two years of his collegiate career.
“Daiyan is a kid we know well,” Norvell said. “Tremendous linebacker, very athletic.”
Henley paces a WSU defense that has been superb to start the season. The Cougars plan to ride the momentum from their road win over Wisconsin and tune up their offense against a defense they recognize. The Rams are looking to catch WSU napping coming off an emotional and physically demanding victory.
“He’ll try to get every advantage he can,” Dickert said of Norvell. “They’re a great coaching staff. They’re building a program over there, just like we are. We expect them to be ready to go and they’ll be pulling out all the punches, trying to get a win.”
Both coaching staffs will draw from past connections and schematic familiarity in hopes of fashioning an edge on the field.
“You always worry, ‘Oh, do they have our signals? Do they know our techniques? Do they know what hurts us?’ ” Dickert said. “There’s a game that I imagine both sides are playing right now in the meeting rooms.”
Another Wisconsin coach
The Cougars are led by a Wisconsin native and each of their first three games this season have come against opponents with head coaches from Wisconsin.
Norvell was born in Madison, Wisconsin. So was Badgers coach Paul Chryst. Eck is from La Crosse – on the western border of the state. Dickert was born in Waukesha, located in the suburbs of Milwaukee, but was brought up in several other small Wisconsin towns.