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First look: Seeking first bowl win since 2018, Washington State faces Mountain West champ Fresno State at the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward throws up a fist pump after a touchdown against Utah on Oct. 27 at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

What is it? Playing in its eighth bowl game since 2013, Washington State (7-5) will conclude its first full season under coach Jake Dickert in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl against Mountain West champion Fresno State (9-4).

Where is it? SoFi Stadium – a state-of-the-art NFL venue and the third-year home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? ABC will carry the broadcast.

“It’s a big-time opportunity, being able to play on ABC … and playing in an NFL stadium is something we all dream of,” Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward said.

Who is favored? The Bulldogs are 1-point favorites.

How did they fare last time out?

WSU went blow-for-blow with visiting Washington in an entertaining first half of a highly anticipated rivalry matchup on Nov. 26, but the Cougars didn’t have any answers for the Huskies’ offense as the game progressed. UW picked apart WSU’s defense in the second half while the Cougars’ offense went to sleep, and the Huskies sprinted to a 51-33 win to reclaim the Apple Cup after the trophy’s one-year stay in Pullman.

WSU surrendered 703 yards. Since 2000, only two opponents have totaled more yards in a game against the Cougars – Oregon recorded 719 in a 62-38 win in 2013, and USC amassed 745 during a 55-13 rout of WSU in 2005.

UW’s prolific offense, which boasts the nation’s most-productive passing game, sliced through a WSU defense that had been one of the Pac-12’s best throughout the season. For the first time this season, the Cougars failed to record a tackle for loss. WSU still finished the regular season atop the conference rankings with 74 TFLs.

The Cougs had led the conference in scoring defense for five consecutive weeks, but fell to third in the Pac-12 in that category (22.42 points allowed per game) after the loss to UW.

Fresno State won its eighth consecutive game and captured its first Mountain West championship since 2018, toppling Boise State 28-16 on Dec. 3 in Boise.

Led by star quarterback Jake Haener, the Bulldogs started to gain separation in the fourth quarter against one of the nation’s elite defensive units – the Broncos came into the game ranked in the FBS top 10 in both scoring and total defense.

Haener was named the game’s offensive MVP after completing 17 of 27 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. Fresno State cornerback Cam Lockridge recorded two interceptions and Bulldog running back Jordan Mims tallied 83 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Scouting the opponent

Coach Jeff Tedford led Fresno State to 26 wins over his first three seasons with the program (2017-19) before stepping down for health reasons. He handed the reins to Kalen DeBoer, who guided the Bulldogs to a 10-win season in 2021 and earned himself the head-coaching job at Washington.

Shortly after DeBoer left for Seattle, the Bulldogs rehired Tedford. His second stint at the school got off to a rocky start, but Fresno State recovered in October and enters bowl season as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Fresno State’s prospects looked grim earlier this year, after the Bulldogs sustained four consecutive losses following a season-opening win over FCS Cal Poly. The Bulldogs dropped two games against Pac-12 opponents during that stretch – a narrow loss to Oregon State and a blowout defeat at USC.

Haener went down with an injury against the Trojans on Sept. 17. The senior missed the next four games, but Fresno State stayed afloat without him, posting a 2-2 record.

When Haener returned in late October, the Bulldogs became serious contenders for the Mountain West title. With its NFL-caliber quarterback back at the helm, Fresno State tallied 37.2 points per game across its final six contests. Haener threw for 2,616 yards and 18 touchdowns against three interceptions on a 72.6% completion rate across nine games.

“(Haener) is going to make someone really happy when they draft him,” Dickert said of the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, who began his collegiate career at Washington. “Five years from now, someone is going to be really happy they got a starter in the NFL. That’s the type of talent he has. You might be looking at a different season for Fresno State if he’s healthy for all 12 games.”

The Bulldogs come into the LA Bowl with the top scoring offense and passing offense among Mountain West teams at 30.7 points and 269.8 yards per game. They rank 50th and 27th nationally in those stat categories, respectively.

“So, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” WSU edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. said. “But that’s nothing different to the quarterback play we have already seen. The Pac-12 is full of dynamic and great quarterbacks.”

WSU’s defense will be missing its most talented player. Senior outside linebacker Daiyan Henley, an All-Pac-12 first-teamer and NFL draft prospect, has opted out of the bowl game. The Cougars’ linebacking corps was hit hard this month by the NCAA transfer portal, which claimed Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown – WSU’s co-starters at middle linebacker.

WSU’s defense will also be without a couple of coaches. Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brian Ward left the program recently to take the same job at Arizona State. Edge rushers coach A.J. Cooper joined the Sun Devils, too. Dickert, who served as WSU’s DC/LBs coach from 2020-21, is returning to that post.

“He’s done it before, so I’m sure he can do it again,” Stone said.

The Cougars’ secondary should return to full power. Senior nickel Armani Marsh missed the Apple Cup, but is expected to be back in the lineup Saturday. WSU’s passing coverage is facing another formidable challenge coming off a rough outing against the Huskies’ big-play aerial attack.

Dickert sees some similarities between the offensive schemes of UW and Fresno State.

“That (Apple Cup) week did help us prepare for what we’re going to see from Fresno,” he said.

Haener is buoyed by a deep and talented receiving corps featuring four players with three or more touchdowns apiece. Senior Jalen Moreno-Cropper, a first-team All-Mountain West selection, paces the pack with 1,044 receiving yards and five TDs. Nikko Remigio, a second-team all-conference pick, has 768 yards and five scores.

Fresno State leans slightly toward the pass, but enjoys a high-scoring option in the backfield. Senior tailback Jordan Mims has been a workhorse this year, with 243 of the team’s 399 rushing attempts. He has produced 1,161 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.

Like WSU, the Bulldogs have struggled to protect their quarterback. Fresno State has allowed 35 sacks – 106th nationally. The Cougs’ defense has logged 29 sacks, but their offensive line has surrendered 40.

Fresno State’s defense posted impressive numbers, albeit in a conference that doesn’t feature many dangerous offensive teams. The Bulldogs ceded 20.5 points per game, ranking fifth in the Mountain West and 25th nationally. They allowed 351 yards per game, good for 39th nationally and fifth in the conference.

“(The Mountain West) is a little less high-powered offense and scoring, and more physical, pound-it-out, defensive-type teams,” Dickert said. “They’re not giving up big plays. You want to be a good defense, you want to give up only 20 points per game, you don’t give up big plays.”

WSU’s offense can’t afford another second-half letdown. The Cougars were sharp early in recent games, averaging 280 yards and 25.3 points in the first halves of their past three contests, but slumped after intermission. WSU averaged 101 yards and three points in the second half over the past three weeks.

Can the Cougars find consistency with a shorthanded offense?

WSU will be without starting outside receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, who combined for eight TDs and over 1,000 yards this year. Both entered the transfer portal earlier this month. Stribling committed to Oklahoma State on Monday. Senior slot receiver Renard Bell missed five games this season due to an injury and will not return for the LA Bowl.

Senior slotback Robert Ferrel, the Cougars’ No. 3 receiver this year, will be the best option in the passing game, which will feature several unproven players assuming significant roles.

To have a chance, the Cougars will probably need superb efforts from quarterback Cameron Ward and tailback Nakia Watson. The two first-year WSU starters landed on the all-conference honorable mention team last week. Ward passed for 3,094 yards and 23 TDs against eight interceptions on a 64% completion rate. He hasn’t thrown a pick since a loss to Oregon State on Oct. 15. Watson has been the star of the offense since returning from an injury in early November. He piled up 553 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage over the past four games.

What happened last time?

WSU owns a 3-1 record against the Bulldogs. The teams last met on Sept. 10, 1994, when coach Mike Price’s Cougars scored a 24-3 win in Pullman.

Things to know

1. Dickert spent three years coaching in the Mountain West. He served as Wyoming’s safeties coach for the 2017 and ’18 seasons and coordinated the Cowboys’ defense in 2019 before moving on to WSU. Dickert faced Tedford’s Bulldogs in each of his first two seasons at Wyoming. The Cowboys lost to Fresno State both times – 13-7 in Laramie, Wyoming in 2017 and 27-3 in Fresno in 2018.

“I’d been in that league for three years and know, to win in that league, you can compete at pretty much the highest level in the Pac-12,” Dickert said.

2. The Cougars are searching for their first bowl win since coach Mike Leach and quarterback Gardner Minshew led a 28-26 Cougars victory over Iowa State in the 2018 Alamo Bowl. WSU is 8-9 all time in bowl games and 2-5 in the postseason since 2013, when Leach’s Cougars broke a 10-year bowl drought. The Bulldogs have a 14-14 overall record in bowl games. They are 3-0 in bowls under Tedford.

3. WSU players will visit Universal Studios this week. They will also attend a taping of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” For the Cougars’ coaches, it’ll be the “no-fun bowl,” Dickert said. WSU staffers will conduct practices in the morning and make time in the evenings for recruiting visits to lock up commitments ahead of the NCAA’s early signing period, which opens Dec. 21.