PULLMAN – The “foundation” of this Washington State football team, according to interim coach Jake Dickert, is its offensive line.
“I’ve always felt that way,” he said Monday. “Those guys have been consistent in their effort and their energy and their focus.”
Cougar enthusiasts and Pac-12 onlookers may not have agreed about the O-line’s stability earlier this season, when WSU surrendered 15 sacks in its first four games and averaged under 3.5 yards per carry in two of those contests.
But WSU seems to have turned a corner in the trenches. The veteran-laden offensive line has strung together five solid outings and is beginning to play up to its lofty preseason expectations.
“It’s awesome to see them improve and see them in games being, basically, I’d say one of the best offensive lines in the country,” edge Brennan Jackson said Tuesday.
The Cougs yielded one sack apiece to Oregon State, Stanford and BYU, and they didn’t give up any two weeks ago at Arizona State, which entered that game leading the conference with 22 sacks.
“Our strength on offense is our offensive line,” Dickert said during WSU’s bye week. “They’re tough, they’ve got a hard mindset. They know what it’s like to be an O-lineman because they’ve been here a long time.
“It was impressive to watch, because I have a lot of respect for Arizona State’s defensive line.”
The acting coach hadn’t been able to employ a “critical eye” earlier in the year when evaluating the linemen, because he’d been busy focusing on his defense.
“But what I’m seeing over the last couple weeks are really good performances, really good blitz IDs and pick-ups, and guys that are finishing to the whistle,” he said.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura’s savviness in the pocket has also been a boon for the “unsung heroes” on the O-line, Dickert noted.
WSU has become more effective in the run game over the past three weeks as well.
The Cougars scored seven touchdowns on the ground in those three contests. They had only tallied five rushing touchdowns in the six games prior.
Running back Max Borghi set career highs in carries against Stanford and BYU. Then, in the desert, the Cougars ran the ball 42 times – the program’s most rushing attempts in a game in 11 years – for a season-best 166 yards.
“Awesome number,” Dickert said of the 42 carries. “To watch them finish the game the way they did, I thought it was fantastic.”
WSU sought to drain the clock and preserve its big lead, but Dickert said he’s also made it a point to increase the workload for Borghi and Deon McIntosh, particularly in crunch time.
“I always want to outrush our opponent in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We did that (versus ASU). I’m proud of our guys, proud of the O-line. I thought they protected well, I thought they finished the runs really well. And Max and Deon are a great 1-2 punch.
“It’ll always be a part of the offense. It’s the run-and-shoot for a reason, and I think we can feature those guys even more going forward.”
Veteran tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan – both 39-game career starters – have graded out well, per Pro Football Focus. Lucas has yet to allow a sack this year and should hear his name called at next year’s NFL draft.
Senior center Brian Greene, a Rimington Trophy watch list player, provided a boost to the O-line when he returned from an injury and reclaimed his starting post Oct. 2 at Cal.
“It comes down to the leadership in that group,” Jackson said. “Abe and Liam have been here for a long time. They’ve been through the ups and downs. They know how to handle the group in the best way and for them, as the season has gone on … they really are just getting a cohesive unit going.
“That group plays like one person. They’re all in sync.”
Right guard Cade Beresford ranks high in the FBS in pass blocking, per PFF. His backup, Ma’ake Fifita, has proven flexible. He can play both guard spots and left tackle.
Junior left guard Jarrett Kingston appears to be coming along after an erratic start to the year for WSU’s interior line.
Beresford suffered a lower-body injury that kept him sidelined for the second half at ASU, and Fifita filled in without issue. Beresford is questionable to play when the Cougs visit Oregon in Eugene on Saturday.
“Cade is taking it a day at a time, but he’s gotten better and better,” Dickert said. “Ma’ake’s proven he can come in there, and (backup center) Konner (Gomness) has done a good job of being multiple this week. We have some options.”
WSU (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) will need another steady showing from its big men up front when it meets the third-ranked Ducks (8-1, 5-1) and their stalwart defensive front, which boasts a sure-fire first-round pick in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
UO ranks second in the league in stopping the run (123.1 yards per game) and fourth in sacks (18).
Djibril expected to return
Dickert said free safety Halid Djibril should be “ready to go” against Oregon.
Djibril started WSU’s first two games before sustaining a leg injury against Portland State on Sept. 11. He hasn’t appeared since. George Hicks III has played well in his stead, but WSU has been fairly thin at the safety position since Djibril’s injury.
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