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New Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is familiar with the Air Raid offense after seeing it almost every season during his tenure at Washington.
From 2014 on, Kwiatkowski was either defensive coordinator or co-defensive coordinator with Jimmy Lake for the Huskies. They faced Washington State and former Cougar head coach Mike Leach annually in the Apple Cup before Leach left for Mississippi State ahead of the 2020 season.
Leach unabashedly runs the purest form of the Air Raid offense. Current Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen once famously quipped that despite the evolution of the Air Raid under coaches like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy to include potent rushing attacks, Leach was resistant to changing his pass-first, pass-second offense.
“Leach is so good because he don’t change ****,” Holgorsen is quoted as saying.
But his elevation of the WSU program notwithstanding, Leach was not good against Kwiatkowski/Lake defenses. He never changed **** and Washington knew it.
Kwiatkowski and Lake shut down the Wazzu offense year after year after year (after year after year after year). Leach never scored more than 17 points against the Huskies and never defeated Washington when Kwiatkowski was in Seattle (Leach’s lone Apple Cup victory came in 2012 against current Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian).
“Clearly he’s had a great deal of success against the Air Raid or the Mike Leach-type systems and defended them very well every time he’s played them,” Sarkisian said of Kwiatkowski on January 22.
Kwiatkowski defended other Air Raid offenses in the Pac-12. USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell experienced a result similar to those of his former head coach at Texas Tech. Washington defeated USC 28-14 in 2019 and allowed 375 yards compared to the Trojans’ season average of 454 yards per game.
Even SMU head coach Sonny Dykes fell to Washington in two of the three matchups he had during his time as head coach of Cal, including a 31-7 loss in 2014 with future No. 1 pick Jared Goff.
Kwiatkowski saw the Air Raid in the Pac-12, but he’ll see that style of offense more often while coaching in the Big 12. That challenge is part of why he took the Texas job.
“I think it was a combination of getting that itch to try and do something different, and the University of Texas is an outstanding university in the Big 12,” Kwiatkowski told Sports Radio KJR on January 20. “It’ll be fun to go out there and try and defend those high-powered offenses.”
Those high-powered offenses, though inspired by the Air Raid, are not the exact same Air Raid offenses he faced at Washington. Since Riley took over at Oklahoma, the Sooners have averaged more rushing attempts per game than passing attempts. Same for Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in the same time span, save for the 2017 season when the Cowboys averaged 38.7 passing attempts per game to 38.5 rushing attempts.
Even Holgorsen approached a 50-50 run-pass split during his last three seasons as West Virginia’s head coach. Harrell was no Leach – the Pirate averaged 55 pass attempts to 16 rushing attempts in 2019 — but he still valued passing over running. The Trojans averaged at least 10 more pass attempts than rush attempts during the 2019 and 2020 seasons under Harrell’s coordination.
Riley, Gundy, and Holgorsen all take a different approach than the one that Leach hadn’t changed since he brought it to Division I football at Kentucky.
The number of coaches from the Leach tree in the Big 12 remains high. The Air Raid has resurfaced at Texas Tech, where former Red Raider quarterback Sonny Cumbie has taken over as offensive coordinator. Doug Meacham remains at TCU and he has connections to the Air Raid.
But the whole conference doesn’t run Air Raid or Raid Adjacent systems. Matt Campbell’s offense at Iowa State likely reminds Kwiatkowski of offenses he saw when facing Stanford. Same with Chris Klieman at Kansas State.
“When you go from one extreme at Texas Tech to the other extreme at Iowa State and everybody else in between, I think you have to be multiple,” Sarkisian said about his defense. “You can’t be one dimensional. It won’t be an experiment for (Kwiatkowski) because he’s been doing that now for the past 7-10 years from a coordinator standpoint.”
The Pac-12 wasn’t as diverse offensively as the Big 12, but it was likely a close second in the metric. As a result, Sarkisian is confident in his defensive coordinator’s ability to stop the spread offenses he will see during most Big 12 matchups based off Kwiatkowski’s track record.
Cover photo via Mazvita Maraire/YouTube