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Sports >  WSU football

Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Central Michigan

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 30, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

Washington State and Central Michigan crammed game prep into about three days of practice. The Sun Bowl competitors “jumped ship in the middle of the ocean,” CMU coach Jim McElwain analogized, after coronavirus-related issues forced Miami to pull out of the Sun Bowl and Boise State to opt out of the Arizona Bowl earlier this week, setting up this scraped-together postseason contest in El Paso, Texas. Without the practice time necessary to install game plans, the Cougars and Chippewas will rely on “base principles,” both coaches said. “In three days of preparation, no one’s going to get all that specific,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “You’ve got to make sure you’re letting your guys play fast.” The short-lived run-and-shoot era is coming to a close at WSU, which will bring in a new staff on offense and adopt a balanced version of the Air Raid in 2022. But the Cougars are perhaps fortunate to be playing once more with the run-and-shoot offense, a system “built for sudden changes and things like this,” Dickert said, reminding reporters that blocking schemes and route formations in WSU’s offense are adjusted on the fly – based on whatever tendencies a defense presents. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Brian Smith empties the playbook and dials up some trickery in his last game as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator. “It’s obviously emotional, not only for me but the team as a whole,” second-year quarterback Jayden de Laura said of playing his last game with the run-and-shoot staffers. “I’ve built a great relationship with all of them, even the (coaches) who aren’t here anymore and the guys who came in to replace them. I wish them the best. We’re going to go out there and play our hearts out and leave everything out on the field for them.”

When WSU has the ball …

De Laura, the spirited gunslinger from Hawaii who broke out this year as a rising star in the Pac-12, and all of WSU’s standout pass-catchers made the trip, but four key pieces on offense did not: senior running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, and senior tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan. Third-string tailback Nakia Watson, the Cougars’ expected starter in 2022, will make his first career start. “He’s ready to take over the mantle,” Dickert said of Watson, a Texas native. “Trust me, he’s a physical, downhill runner and I think he’s going to fit perfectly into what we’re doing.” Since taking over as boss, Dickert has emphasized establishing the ground game, but it might be in WSU’s best interests to lean on the aerial attack, considering the Cougars’ new-look offensive line and the Chippewas’ porous pass defense, which ranks 117th in the nation. “Let’s call it the way it is: That’s our Achilles’ heel,” McElwain said of CMU’s pass coverage. “I’m sure they’re licking their chops looking at us right now, ‘We might be able to set an NCAA record against these guys.’ ” The Chippewas’ defense causes havoc in the run game, and has recorded 110 tackles for loss – good for ninth in the country. Dickert was asked Thursday to pitch his team to fans who might be on the fence about attending the game. “You’re going to see one of the most explosive offenses in the country,” he said. “You’re going to see one of the best young quarterbacks, I believe, there is out there.”

When CMU has the ball …

Few opponents this year have managed to contain a dynamic Chippewas offense paced by one of the country’s top young backfield tandems in quarterback Daniel Richardson and tailback Lew Nichols III – both redshirt freshmen. Richardson threw for 2,424 yards and 23 TDs against just five picks on a 61.4% completion rate this season after beating out former Washington quarterback Jacob Sirmon for the job. But the Cougars have Nichols at the top of their scout. The 220-pound Detroit native sits atop the FBS rankings in rushing yards.” The Chippewas rank in the top 30 in the FBS in total offense (450.7 yards per game), scoring offense (33 ppg) and passing offense (270 ypg). CMU has coughed up only 12 turnovers this season – tied for 19th nationally. WSU’s defense, meanwhile, made a living on takeaways this year, collecting 27 of them to finish the regular season fifth in the FBS in turnovers gained. Cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement will make his first start for the Cougars, filling in for pro-bound Jaylen Watson, who opted out of the game earlier this month.

No. 5 for Cougar LBs

Middle linebacker Justus Rogers and weak-side compatriot Jahad Woods will cap their historic Cougar careers with another rare feat: They’ll both be attending a bowl game for the fifth time. The two redshirted in 2016, when WSU concluded its season with a Holiday Bowl loss to Minnesota. They started in the Cougars’ Holiday Bowl defeat against Michigan State in 2017, then helped WSU to an Alamo Bowl win a year later before its Cheez-It Bowl loss in 2019. Woods and Rogers share the WSU record for career games played (55). “I’m starting to appreciate everything more as my college career winds down,” Rogers said. “It’s our last practice (Wednesday), our last practice in shoulder pads yesterday. You take a second to look back. … This one means a great deal to me.”

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