WASHINGTON — — Wednesday's Military Bowl against East Carolina is not only the last game of Ralph Friedgen's 10-year career. It could be something else for the Terps and their fans — a preview of what they can expect if former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach takes over.
Though Leach is officially nothing more than a candidate for now — the only candidate first-year athletic director Kevin Anderson mentioned by name last week in announcing that Friedgen won't be back next season — a semblance of Leach's famous Air Raid offense will be on display at RFK Stadium.
The Pirates are not close yet to running it as efficiently and breathtakingly as the Red Raiders did during the last few years of Leach's own 10-year career in Lubbock, but they did it well enough to score more than 38 points a game this season and allow Dominique Davis, a junior college transfer who once played at Boston College, to tie for the nation's lead in touchdown passes with 36.
Ruffin McNeill, who took over as Texas Tech's interim coach for last season's Alamo Bowl when Leach was suspended and later fired, never thought about using anything else when he got his first head coaching job at East Carolina, his alma mater. He brought five of Leach's assistants, including receivers coach Lincoln Riley, to teach the Pirates how to play fast and furiously, with footballs flinging everywhere.
"I've been coaching 30 years. I've done defense all my life, and as a coordinator you break down film and you go, 'I like that play. I like that formation'," McNeill said Friday, shortly after his team arrived in Washington. "Once I got to Texas Tech with Coach Leach and had to defend this offense every day … I knew if I became a head coach that's what I wanted to do. I felt like I could take it anywhere."
Variations of Leach's offense are being run by other former Texas Tech assistants or by those who played under Leach.
Oklahoma, where Leach worked as offensive coordinator for one season when Josh Heupel was a Sooners quarterback, finished second in passing offense this season with Heupel as their offensive coordinator. Oklahoma State was third under offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who spent eight years at Texas Tech and was recently named offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting at West Virginia. Former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury was co-offensive coordinator at Houston, which finished fifth in passing. ECU was seventh in passing.
"It is the exact same principles," said McNeill, whose offense is in sharp contrast to a defense that surrenders more than 43 points a game, 118th of out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. "We try to get as many people touching the ball as possible; distribution is the key."
Eight ECU players had at least 10 receptions, five had at least 35. Dwayne Harris, Conference USA's player of the year, led the Pirates with school records of 93 catches (eighth in the country) and 1,055 yards. Lance Lewis, who transferred from a junior college in Mississippi, added 78 for 979 yards with a team-high 13 touchdowns.
"It's a dream come true, for the quarterback and for the receivers," said Harris, who caught 10 touchdown passes.
The dream was evident from the start for Davis. After being suspended at Boston College for academic reasons after the 2008 season, Davis wound up at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College and was looking for the right program — and offense — when McNeill and Riley, now ECU's offensive coordinator, called the day after McNeill took the job.
"Coach Riley told me that he would make me successful, and that's what he did," said Davis, who completed 356 of 552 passes for 3,699 yards.
Davis, who didn't gain his eligibility back until the summer, had one month to learn the offense, but he proved to be a quick study. In his debut, Davis threw for 383 yards and five touchdowns, including one for 33 yards as time expired to beat Tulsa in a wild, nationally televised 51-49 win.
"You've just got to do what the coach tells you to do, once you get it down, it's not only fun for the players, but it's fun for the fans," said Davis, who as a redshirt freshman at Boston College made his first start against Maryland, helping the Eagles to a 28-21 victory. "It's pretty much timing, you've got to get the timing down with the receivers."
Riley, who played for and later coached under Leach at Texas Tech, said that the offense is not as difficult to learn as it might look given all the moving parts.