PULLMAN – Fans attending Washington State’s Crimson and Gray spring game were eager to get a sneak preview of the team’s new offense and highly touted transfer quarterback.
They didn’t leave disappointed.
Cameron Ward led WSU’s newly installed Air Raid attack with accuracy and poise, guiding four touchdown drives in his six possessions Saturday afternoon as the Cougars wrapped up spring camp with a two-hour mock game in front of a few thousand spectators at sunny Gesa Field.
Teams were divided by offense and defense. The defenders “scored” by forcing turnovers, three-and-outs, punts and missed field goals. WSU’s offense prevailed 56-51 on a 50-yard walk-off touchdown from reserve QB Chris Irvin to outside receiver Tsion Nunnally.
With Ward in the lineup, the Cougar offense outscored its defensive counterparts 28-9.
“It’s tough for a guy that’s never played in this environment, in this stadium before with this capacity and atmosphere, and I think he handled it well – he handled himself,” slot receiver Lincoln Victor said of Ward, the sophomore who left FCS program Incarnate Word after two prolific seasons and immediately captured starting duties at WSU.
“He rallied the troops when we needed it. He was himself. He wasn’t trying to be Superman and do things out of the ordinary. He was Cam Ward and I commend him for being who he is. … It’s only going to rise from here and he’s only gonna get better. Fans should expect a lot from him.”
Ward completed 21 of 30 passes for 246 yards and tossed four touchdowns. He didn’t commit any turnovers and didn’t force anything, making good use of quick, precise passes and sprinkling in the occasional shot while operating the up-tempo offensive system with grace during a promising debut for the WSU faithful.
Ward lofted an 18-yard touchdown to a wide-open Drake Owen on the first series and rotated at QB on every other possession until taking a seat for the day just before halftime.
“Scoring on the first drive, that’s big,” Ward said. “That’s a mindset thing.”
Ward’s highlights included a high-arching, 20-yard completion to Donovan Ollie in the red zone, a goal-line TD to De’Zhaun Stribling on a screen and a pinpoint 20-yard scoring pass to Victor. But perhaps his play of the day came early in the second quarter when Ward stepped up in the pocket, evaded a rusher and floated a ball deep down the near sideline for Victor, who’d left his defender in the dust.
Victor adjusted his go-route slightly and collected the reception, then made a hesitation move to trip up a closing defender and raced ahead to complete the 40-yard scoring play.
“You can just tell Cam is comfortable,” first-year coach Jake Dickert said, “and we’ve got a lot of talent around him. Just give him the ball and watch him work.”
It should be noted that Ward wasn’t always working against the Cougs’ best defenders. Established standouts such as nickel Armani Marsh and edges Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson participated in only one or two drives.
“I was surprised to see Armani Marsh play two series,” Dickert said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Get him out.’ We had some guys on snap counts. … I know, when the lights turn on, what we’re going to get out of those guys.
“We kinda got a little bit high in the rep count in the first half, but at the end of the day we wanted to get a certain number with a bunch of guys,” Dickert added. “Even as the scrimmage was going, I was pulling guys myself, like, ‘We’ve seen enough. Let’s make sure we get healthy and get them to the summer.’ “
The Cougs scrimmaged without several key players who are recovering from injuries, including cornerbacks Chau Smith-Wade and Chris Jackson, nickel Armauni Archie, and slot receivers Renard Bell and Orion Peters.
The second half featured five drives, a running clock and lineups filled mostly with reserves. The offense scored on four possessions after going into the break trailing 49-28.
WSU’s defense locked up the Cougs’ second- and third-team offense throughout the first half and led by as many as 28 points late in the second quarter.
“We just made sure we were in position to make our plays, not trying to do anything too big,” said middle linebacker Travion Brown, who snagged one of the Cougar defense’s four interceptions and one of its six sacks on the day. “That carried us in the first half – being able to make the plays that are put on the table for us.”
Tackle Ahmir Crowder got the defense on the board with a fourth-down sack to cap the second drive. On the two ensuing possessions, standout transfer linebacker Daiyan Henley popped freshman running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker in the backfield on a fourth-down run and transfer safety Sam Lockett III picked off Xavier Ward.
Freshman corner Alphonse Oywak picked a pass from Emmett Brown that sailed above its target and fellow frosh Dylan Clinton intercepted a throw from Xavier Ward that was broken up in traffic and ricocheted into the air.
“Some of these guys at the bottom of the roster, they work their tails off for this football team and I’m proud of those guys for going out there and making plays and showing what they can do,” Dickert said.
Putting pressure on the QB from the DT position has been an emphasis this spring, so Dickert was pleased that 3½ of the unit’s sacks resulted from pressure inside. WSU didn’t dial up any defensive exotics and blitzed infrequently.
“The defense as a whole really started fast and that was fun to see,” Dickert said. “We were very vanilla today, just getting back to some base things that our guys are really comfortable with.”
WSU’s ground game produced over 50 yards combined on its first five carries but finished the day with 117 yards on 26 attempts. Schlenbaker, competing for the No. 2 spot behind Nakia Watson, shouldered the heaviest workload with 11 rushes and finished with 34 hard-earned yards. Spokane native RB Kannon Katzer found gaps at the line of scrimmage on run-pass options and sped through for 53 yards on just four carries.
Victor led all pass-catchers with 95 yards on six grabs. Backup slot Josh Meredith had 66 yards on eight catches. Nunnally, who will be vying for reps on the outside this season, amassed 77 yards on five receptions while his competition, Anderson Grover, recorded 75 yards and a diving TD on three receptions.
The tight ends, WSU’s newest position group, totaled 113 yards on seven catches.
Five Cougar QBs combined to pass 50 of 76 for 656 yards and eight TDs behind a depleted offensive line that had only nine players available.
“They all held up well,” Dickert said of the O-line, noting that some of the sacks can be attributed to the QBs. “I’ve been proud of that group and where they’ve gone from Day 1 till now.”
Irvin and Luke Holcomb, both deep reserves, took all of the snaps under center in the second half. Sophomore Victor Gabalis, redshirt freshman Xavier Ward and true freshman Emmett Brown are competing for the backup QB role. Gabalis sat out the spring game with an injury, and Brown and Ward were shaky.
Past meets present
Late in the first half, WSU made an impromptu change at QB.
Ryan Leaf, a Cougar quarterback legend who was on the field covering the game for the Pac-12 Network, subbed into the lineup for two plays.
His first throw fell short of intended target CJ Moore, who was running a hitch route, but Leaf’s arm warmed up and he connected on his second attempt.
Just afterward, Cameron Ward squared off with another WSU great.
With the spring game still occurring behind them, Ward had to face Luke Falk, the Cougs’ QB from 2014-17, in a skills challenge. Trash bins were placed in either corner of the end zone, and Ward and Falk stood at the 10-yard line and tried to fire passes into the buckets. Falk dropped one in after about five tries.
“My biggest message is: I want to bring the family back together,” Dickert said. “It’s a fun part of the spring game, having the past meet the future and enjoying that experience.”
Former coach Bill Doba was WSU’s honorary captain for the coin toss.