One of the Pac-12’s better defensive teams, eager to bounce back from a humbling regular-season finale, will face the Mountain West’s most potent offensive squad when Washington State and Fresno State clash in the Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl.
The Cougars meet the Bulldogs on Dec. 17 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ABC.
WSU (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) won three of its last four games, ending the season with a 51-33 loss to Washington in the Apple Cup.
The Bulldogs (9-4, 7-1 Mountain West) capped their regular season on an eight-game winning streak, toppling Boise State 28-16 in the Mountain West championship on Saturday.
The Cougars surrendered over 700 yards to Washington during one of WSU’s worst defensive performances of the past two decades. WSU gave up a season-high 485 yards through the air against the Huskies – the most productive passing team in the country.
WSU’s defensive effort in the Apple Cup overshadowed what has otherwise been a strong campaign from the unit, which has a chance to pocket some closure and prove itself in a postseason contest against another high-powered passing attack.
But the Cougars might have to do it without their defensive coordinator. First-year DC Brian Ward is reportedly joining Arizona State’s staff in the same role.
Led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in senior Jake Haener, the Bulldogs finished 27th nationally and first in the Mountain West in passing offense at 269.8 yards per game. Haener threw for 2,616 yards and 18 touchdowns against three interceptions on a 72.6% completion rate across nine games.
He played an efficient game Saturday in the Mountain West title against Boise State – a top-10 defensive team nationally – and guided two scoring drives in the fourth quarter of Fresno State’s victory, which guaranteed the Bulldogs a spot in the LA Bowl.
Haener sustained an injury Sept. 17 and missed the next four games. The Bulldogs started the season 1-4, but rattled off eight consecutive wins against Mountain West opponents to claim their second conference championship under Jeff Tedford, who coached the team between 2017-19 then retired for two seasons before returning this year.
Fresno State received 25 votes in the latest AP Top 25 Poll and sit five spots out of the rankings. They’ll be playing in their eighth bowl game since 2010, and 29th in program history. Fresno State is 14-14 in bowls and is riding a three-game winning streak in bowl games.
The Bulldogs topped the Mountain West in scoring offense at 30.7 points per game (50th nationally). Leaning on the passing game, Fresno State gained 395 yards per game – good for second in the conference.
Its defense posted solid numbers, albeit in a conference that doesn’t feature many dangerous offensive teams. Fresno State allowed 20.5 points per game, ranking fifth in the Mountain West and 25th nationally.
The Cougars led the Pac-12 in scoring defense for five consecutive weeks before their Apple Cup letdown. WSU ended up third in that category at 22.4 points per game and finished fifth in total defense (394 yards per game). The Cougars tallied 74 tackles for loss and 29 sacks – first and fourth in the conference, respectively.
WSU’s defense performed admirably throughout the year, but the group collapsed against two of the Pac-12’s flashiest offensive teams in Washington and Oregon. Overall, the Cougars’ defense steadied the team this season under first-year coach Jake Dickert while a new-look offense experienced mixed results.
“I’m very satisfied with the team and how we did, and the mentality,” Dickert said Friday. “More importantly, there was a foundation that needed to be laid. We came into a little bit of quicksand and we had to firm it up. … For Year 1, there was a lot of success that I’m proud of.”
The Cougars started 3-0, with a road win over ranked Wisconsin, then fell to the Ducks in a 44-41 thriller at Gesa Field. WSU’s offense faltered during a three-game skid in the middle of the season – all of those losses coming against ranked teams – but the Cougars rebounded with three straight runaway wins over some of the conference’s weakest teams before their Apple Cup defeat.
WSU has played in a bowl game in each of the past seven seasons – excluding the coronavirus-disrupted 2020 campaign. The Cougars are 8-9 in bowl games and haven’t captured a bowl win since defeating Iowa State in the 2018 Alamo Bowl. Last year, a shorthanded WSU team lost 24-21 to Central Michigan in the Sun Bowl.
“We look at the history of Washington State – only 14 teams have finished with eight wins,” Cougar edge rusher Brennan Jackson noted. WSU hasn’t won eight or more games since 2018.
“We want to be that 15th team. We don’t want to get a participation ring. Those suck. We want a championship, winner ring. That’s the goal, and really, just to solidify what we are as a team that is resilient. Even though we had a really rough patch in the middle, we can finish the season strong. Even coming off a really big heartbreaker from last weekend, we’re just really excited to get out there one more time and finish out strong.”
WSU and Fresno State have squared off four times before. The Cougars hold a 3-1 edge in a series that spanned from 1987-94. The two teams haven’t seen each other since.
Coordinator shakeup at WSU
It’s uncertain whether Ward will join the Cougars in Inglewood, California, for their postseason game. Multiple national media members reported Saturday evening the Glendale, Arizona, native is leaving WSU after one season and becoming the new DC at Arizona State under first-year coach Kenny Dillingham.
Ward added a few wrinkles to the Cougars’ defense, but didn’t make any fundamental changes to a system that Dickert installed in early 2020 and coordinated for two seasons. WSU made a defensive turnaround in 2021, emerging as one of the Pac-12’s top groups and, for the most part, sustaining that success this year. Even without Ward, the Cougar defense should maintain some level of consistency.
WSU nearly lost its offensive coordinator, too. Eric Morris was reportedly one of three candidates for Texas State’s head-coaching position, but the Bobcats went with Incarnate Word coach GJ Kinne instead.
Dickert was asked Friday about WSU coaches exploring other opportunities.
“It’s a unique perspective, because I always go back to putting myself in those shoes,” said Dickert, who made eight coaching stops before landing the WSU job – his first head-coaching gig. “I want what’s best for them and their family. I want what’s best for all of us. … To have an opportunity to be a head coach at an FBS level, it’s a special opportunity. There’s a lot of emotions tied to that, but I fully support him and our coaches and their growth. My job is to develop them, too.
“To be selfish … is not the type of atmosphere I want to create here,” he added. “But I do want their families to say, ‘Wow, I’m so valued here. I love it here.’ Sometimes, Pullman and Washington State can be hard. We want to create an atmosphere where it’s not hard and it’s enjoyable and people love being here. … I think everything’s gotta be the right time and the right place, and that potentially was for (Morris). I’m really excited he’s going to be the leader of our offense going forward.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.