Don’t take your eyes off …
Binoculars in the press box will see some heavy usage as reporters turn their attention to Washington State’s new-look sideline. Interim coach Jake Dickert will be at the helm of a program for the first time in his career, and he’s been honest this week about his lack of experience coaching offense – or even watching it, for that matter. When the Cougars have possession, he typically has his back to the field. The second-year defensive coordinator has been too busy making adjustments with his defenders to spectate WSU’s run-and-shoot. Offensive coordinator Brian Smith, an authority on the distinctive system, will return to the sideline from the box and slide back into play-calling duties. Dickert, who is retaining his DC duties, plans to offer advice throughout the game from a defensive perspective. Smith worked in that role for the Cougars’ first four games before being replaced by co-offensive coordinator/QBs coach Craig Stutzmann, one of five WSU coaches fired Monday for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate – along with head man Nick Rolovich. The Cougars made a pair of hires this week from the outside, bringing in run-and-shoot vets Dan Morrison and Dennis McKnight to coach the signal-callers and offensive line, respectively. It’s uncertain whether the two have arrived in Pullman, but if they’re here Saturday, it’ll be intriguing to see how quickly they have built a rapport with their new players. Over the past three weeks, WSU’s offense has begun to click after a shaky start to the year. To what extent will the coaching turnover disrupt the run-and-shoot’s groove? Perhaps a more pressing question: Will some players elect to not participate because of said coaching turnover?
When WSU has the ball …
Without a doubt, the run-and-shoot’s effectiveness will be the Cougars’ primary on-field question mark. WSU’s offense is coming off its two most productive outings of the season, but without its play-caller in Stutzmann and one of the pioneers of its scheme in Rolovich, one can’t help but wonder: Do the Cougars slow down? Dickert said he won’t tinker at all with the strategy of a WSU offense that has put up a combined 880 yards in the past two weeks, averaging a stellar 6.9 yards per play. BYU tends to play single coverage, and Dickert expects that might leave open soft coverage spots for WSU’s superb slotbacks. The coach indicated during a radio show Thursday that he’ll lean on quarterback Jayden de Laura’s initiative and command of the offense. “Earlier in the season, we were looking for that one guy, that one leader. Now, without a doubt, (it’s) Jayden,” Dickert said of the Pac-12’s leader in passing touchdowns (15). “These guys are rallying around him. They love him. They’ll fight for him, scrap for him, and they just believe in him. That belief is so strong, and when you get that as a quarterback, and everyone in the program is following you, great things are coming.”
When BYU has the ball …
The Cougars from Provo, Utah, play with remarkable balance – splitting the passes and rushes at almost exactly a 50-50 ratio. Dickert called BYU “very explosive,” with a proclivity for stretching the field on early downs. The visiting Cougars “are going to want to run the ball at us, suck us up, then try to throw over the top,” Dickert said. Their running back, Tyler Allgeier (5-foot-11, 220 pounds), is among the nation’s 25 most prolific ballcarriers with 670 yards and nine touchdowns. Evasive BYU quarterback Jaren Hall leads a passing offense that ranks 25th nationally in efficiency and boasts three receivers over 350 yards each. “It’ll be a big challenge for our DBs, who are much improved,” Dickert said. WSU’s secondary might not be tested much if the team’s defensive front continues to play with the same panache it has exhibited over the past few weeks. The crimson Cougars’ edge rushers have developed rapidly under Dickert and assistant A.J. Cooper to become one of the Pac-12’s most disruptive position groups. Across the last three games, WSU’s edges have combined for a staggering eight sacks. The numbers might not show it – the Cougars are middling in the Pac-12 in total defensive columns – but WSU is playing better on that side than it has in four seasons, arguably more. Forcing turnovers and making crucial stops on third downs have been themes for WSU, which ranks third in the FBS with 15 takeaways and has held its past three opponents to a combined 14-of-40 (35%) mark on third downs. Throughout all the turmoil of this week, Cougar fans can feel at least somewhat at ease knowing that a sharp young defensive mind in Dickert is at the wheel. A couple of college football analysts have pegged him as a potential head coaching candidate in the offseason for his quick work in turning an unreliable defense into a stalwart unit.
Right up his alley
Early this week, the Cougars were practicing with just six coaches. It reminded Dickert of the old days. The newly minted interim coach thought back to his time at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point – his alma mater – and D-II stops at Augustana (South Dakota) and Minnesota State. At small programs, “you only have three coaches on a side,” he told Matt Chazanow during a coach’s show Thursday. “I’m used to meeting with the linebackers, then another (meeting) scheduled with the safeties. You have a coach doing the offensive line and quarterbacks at that level. It’s all hands on deck. … It takes you back to your roots.” Dickert spent four seasons at sub-Division I schools and six in the FCS before a Group of Five job with Wyoming. So he grew accustomed to working with scant resources. Before Morrison and McKnight were hired, Smith was forced to wear multiple hats and take on more team meetings, Dickert said.
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