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Sports >  WSU football

Sun Bowl takeaways: Washington State offense learns where it stands heading into 2022

Jan. 2, 2022 Updated Mon., Jan. 3, 2022 at 3:11 p.m.

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Washington State’s Sun Bowl performance, owing to opt-outs and injuries, served to remind the Cougars of their recruiting needs on offense.

WSU’s finale against Central Michigan, a 24-21 loss Friday in El Paso, acted as an incomplete preview of the team’s personnel on that side of the ball heading into 2022.

Cougars players who hadn’t figured into the lineup much this year – or at all – assumed major roles before the appointed time, and some capitalized on the early opportunity. For others, it may have been too soon.

In the first of our two position-by-position breakdowns, we’ll examine WSU’s offense. How did each group fare versus CMU, and where do they stand at season’s end?

Moving pieces on limited O-line

The most glaring issue for WSU (7-6) in its season finale, the shorthanded Cougars’ showing on the offensive line left lingering questions for a staff entering Year 1 of the Jake Dickert era.

WSU will likely be looking for a transfer to slide into one of the starting spots, and the Cougs either need to expedite the development of their youth before their next campaign or bank on the portal to shore up their shallow depth in the trenches.

Their beleaguered offensive line – a patchwork unit missing its two longtime starters at tackle in Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan – conceded five sacks and seven tackles for loss in the run game against a Chippewa defense that came into the game in the top 10 nationally in TFLs.

WSU running back Nakia Watson broke free to the second level just twice all game and quarterback Jayden de Laura spent the first half fleeing from pressure.

True freshman Christian Hilborn filled in at right tackle for Lucas, a four-time All-Pac-12 pick who didn’t allow a sack this year. Hilborn couldn’t keep up with the Chippewas’ fleet-footed defensive ends, surrendering two sacks and two quarterback pressures in the first quarter alone.

“I think their edge rushers were maybe a little more explosive than we felt like on tape,” Dickert said. “They did a good job of changing up some packages with some blitz stuff, mixed some coverages and caught us off balance.”

Hilborn was benched at the start of the second quarter. Starting right guard Ma’ake Fifita, a fast-improving sophomore from Everett, shifted one spot over and permitted one sack and one pressure the rest of the game (Note: pressures are approximates).

There was a discernible improvement after Fifita’s move – though not enough for WSU’s O-line to reverse the Chippewas’ advantage up front.

The Cougs’ options at right guard were slim. They tried Hilborn for a few snaps. More effective in that role, however, was a player whose name is probably unfamiliar to WSU fans.

True freshman Brock Dieu was thrust into his first career appearance and played most of three quarters at right guard. He had an admirable game given the circumstances – on only two or three occasions was Dieu noticeably beaten as the Cougars opted for more quick passes after halftime.

“I’m really proud of him. He kept his composure,” WSU quarterback Victor Gabalis said of Dieu, an All-Arizona prep player last year at Casteel High, which is located in the southeast corner of the Phoenix metro.

“He played really smart, really confident.”

Cade Beresford, WSU’s co-starter at right guard throughout the year with Fifita, transferred to Boise State on Dec. 12, forcing the Cougs to call on unsuspecting youngsters during their pre-bowl period of practices.

WSU went with sophomore Konner Gomness at center for the eighth time this season. Brian Greene, a senior and WSU’s regular starter in the middle who missed a handful of games this season, relocated to left guard.

Jarrett Kingston – the team’s seasonlong starter at left guard – made his first start at tackle. Dickert believes Kingston has the frame and foot speed to be a first-stringer at tackle going forward.

Seven of Watson’s nine second-half carries angled toward the left side of the line, and there still wasn’t much room to run. It’s fair to assume that Greene and Kingston were still finding their footing in new positions.

“We knew what we could do up front against their O-line, and credit our defensive line because we did it basically without having to pressure,” CMU coach Jim McElwain said.

Every offensive lineman who played in the Sun Bowl will return to WSU next season. The Cougs are bringing in a new offensive line coach in Clay McGuire, who tutored WSU big men – including future NFLers Andre Dillard, Joe Dahl and Cole Madison – from 2012-17 under former coach Mike Leach.

Will the Cougars’ O-line configuration in spring camp look similar to the one they fielded in El Paso? Gomness, Greene, Kingston and Fifita might be locked in for starting gigs in 2022, but where will they be stationed? Position battles on the right side of the line will be worth keeping an eye on when spring ball comes around.

Cougs try out Watson

Watson, the junior Wisconsin transfer, dashed outside and to his left in the second quarter, breaking off a run of 40 yards that seemed to signify WSU had shaken free from its first-half funk on offense.

The Cougars connected on a couple of big plays through the air later in the game, yet they never really got Watson going again after his career-long carry. Lanes were scarce and he could not accelerate quickly enough to squeeze through short-lived gaps at the line of scrimmage as CMU’s Robb Akey-led defenders swarmed to the ball.

Watson recorded two runs of over 10 yards. He set up Gabalis’ third-quarter touchdown pass to De’Zhaun Stribling with a 13-yard scamper. Excluding those two explosive plays, Watson rushed 13 times for 5 yards. In all, he gained 58 yards on 15 attempts, pushing his season totals to 110 yards on 34 tries.

He sat the bench most of the season behind the reliable senior tandem of Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh.

Borghi opted out of the postseason to begin training for the NFL draft, and McIntosh didn’t make the trip to West Texas for unspecified reasons.

So the Cougs would be offering an advance exhibit of Watson, who’s expected to be their primary ball-carrier next season. The former four-star recruit out of Austin, Texas, posted 522 yards and five touchdowns across two seasons at Wisconsin and impressed Cougar staffers in fall camp.

Four other RBs were suited up in El Paso, each of them an underclassman: Jouvensly Bazil, Peni Naulu, Dylan Paine and Kannon Katzer, a Spokane native. None of them saw the field.

Dickert has affirmed that Watson, a junior, will be the Cougars’ feature back in 2022, but the first-year coach acknowledged last month that WSU recruiters are searching for a RB who can contribute immediately and perhaps help the Cougs reestablish an effective 1-2 punch on the ground – like they’d done with Borghi and McIntosh throughout the latter half of this season.

In third appearance, Gabalis shows grit

The second-year quarterback from Everett doesn’t have a scholarship yet, but he made a strong case for himself Friday.

Gabalis took the reins in a tight spot and nearly steered the Cougars and their directionless offense to a comeback from down 21-0 at the half.

It was Gabalis’ third career college appearance. He took some meaningless snaps in WSU’s Week 2 rout of Portland State. One week later, he was surprisingly tabbed to replace the injured de Laura in the second half against Southern Cal.

Nobody blamed Gabalis when he failed to spark WSU versus the Trojans – he was pushed into a difficult situation well before he was prepared for it.

Well, Gabalis was prepared enough for his moment at the Sun Bowl. He passed 11 of 23 for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and did not commit a turnover, as WSU outscored CMU by 18 points in the second half.

“I just really felt like the guys had my back and they gave me a lot of confidence,” he said.

Former coach Nick Rolovich had been impressed with Gabalis’ arm strength and insisted during fall camp that he was part of a four-man competition for the start at QB. Once the season began, it was presumed by most that Gabalis was the No. 4 signal-caller on the Cougs’ depth chart – behind de Laura, grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano and fourth-year sophomore Cammon Cooper.

Guarantano didn’t accompany the Cougars to El Paso. Cooper declared his intentions to transfer out of the school in late November.

De Laura absorbed some healthy blows in his shaky first half against CMU (9 of 19, 45 yards) and did not take the field with the team after the halftime break. The standout sophomore from Hawaii returned to the sideline sporting sweats later in the third quarter.

It’s not clear which hit did it, but Dickert said de Laura “got rolled up” at some point in the second quarter, and the team was still awaiting X-rays on an unspecified lower-body injury after the game.

Gabalis took a shot while passing and got up limping in the third quarter. Slotback Travell Harris entered at QB and took a wildcat snap 5 yards into the end zone. Meanwhile, true freshmen Luke Holcomb and Chris Irvin – a Lake City High grad – warmed up.

Gabalis toughed it out and showed great poise, completing a handful of gutsy passes. He fired a 56-yarder down the near sideline to Donovan Ollie and followed it up with a pretty toss to slot Lincoln Victor for a 16-yard score late in the fourth, which cut the Chippewas’ lead to three points.

Dickert has made it clear that he plans to build WSU’s new Air Raid offense around de Laura next season. Friday’s game marked the end of the run-and-shoot era at WSU, which has already begun the process of overhauling its offensive staff.

The coach has said multiple times that WSU needs to add another quarterback before the fall to reinforce its roster. The Cougs recently offered Cameron Ward, who starred at FCS Incarnate Word last season under coach Eric Morris – WSU’s new offensive coordinator.

But assuming de Laura and Gabalis both stick around, the Cougars should feel comfortable with their top two options at QB.

Walk-on slot Victor paces pass-catchers

Junior Hawaii transfer Lincoln Victor posted a career day, piling up 88 yards and a score on four receptions. Along with his stretching TD grab late in the game, the West Camas, Washington, product snagged a slant pass early in the third quarter, shaking off a defender and racing 55 yards to spur WSU’s first scoring series.

Victor had his number called after senior Calvin Jackson Jr., the Pac-12’s No. 2 receiver this season, suffered an undetermined injury in the second quarter that kept him out for the remainder of the day.

“I felt like I was ready for the spotlight, I was ready for this moment,” said Victor, who recorded 293 yards and two TDs on 22 catches this season. “Coming back next year, I’m looking forward to it. But I’ve got a lot of work to do. This is just a sample of what I can do, what I can showcase.”

With Jackson declaring for the NFL draft, Victor might be in line to start.

Slot receiver Renard Bell is returning from an ACL injury that sidelined him this season, and sophomore Joey Hobert had a number of bright moments this year as a reserve slot, as well. Harris, a five-year Cougar, told reporters last month that he’s considering playing one more season in Pullman.

On the outside, freshman Stribling and sophomore Ollie have been starting all year. Ollie tallied a career-best 72 yards in the Sun Bowl and Stribling scored his fifth collegiate TD.

Morris and Dickert like what they see from the Cougars’ deep pool of redshirt pass-catchers, too. The receivers room appears to be well-stocked for the future.

Overall, the Coug receiving corps’ usual explosives were tempered somewhat by a Chippewa defense that was able to eliminate WSU’s running threat, pressure its quarterbacks with four rushers and station extra men in pass coverage.

“Our staff has a lot of history with the run-and-shoot, morphed into some of the Air Raid,” McElwain said. “What you want to do against those (spread-offense) teams is just make them one-dimensional, and that’s what they are. We actually had a lot of confidence going against that type of offense.”

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