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‘We’re gonna stay the course’: In midst of offensive slump, Washington State coach Jake Dickert reaffirms belief in Air Raid

Washington State coach Jake Dickert talks with quarterback Cameron Ward on Oct. 15 in Corvallis, Ore.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – In evaluating Washington State’s 2022 offense, coach Jake Dickert is reminded of a time when the team’s defense struggled.

“When I think about our offense, it takes me back to 2020, when I first got here with that defense,” Dickert said Monday. “If we had to play 12 games that season, we would have given up over 35 points per game, no doubt, and everyone would have been all worried about us and what we’re doing. But we stuck to the process.”

Two seasons ago, as WSU’s first-year defensive coordinator, Dickert asked fans to remain patient and trust in the unit’s rebuild.

Now, as WSU’s first-year head coach, Dickert is taking the same approach with the Cougars’ offense, which is in the midst of a severe midseason slump. Injuries aren’t helping the cause, but overall, the team’s Air Raid system isn’t living up to the preseason hype.

“There’s a new scheme you gotta establish,” Dickert said. “You gotta establish new effort levels, new expectations, new deals. That’s where we’re at right now on offense.

“Have we fallen short of what we’re capable of? Yes, but we’re not gonna panic. We’re gonna keep believing. We’re gonna stay the course.”

That was the message two years ago, when WSU’s defense showed plenty of lapses in its first season under Dickert, surrendering 38.5 points per game during its coronavirus-affected, four-game campaign. WSU emerged in 2021 as one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12.

For the most part, the Cougars’ defense is pulling its weight this season. WSU (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) leads the conference in scoring defense at 20.8 points allowed per game.

“That’s why I alluded to the defense in 2020 – everybody would have been like, ‘Scrap this defense,’ ” Dickert said. “No. Stay the course. Let’s evaluate this a year from now … when we have the ability to establish who we are.

“That’s my message to everybody. We’re gonna stay the course more than ever. We’re gonna double down on what we’re doing. That’s my mentality, because I believe in the people that are doing it.”

While acknowledging that WSU’s offense is behind schedule, Dickert spent much of his weekly news conference discussing the “long-term process” of building stability within this version of the Air Raid and the program as a whole.

“Progress is a process,” Dickert said. “Everybody wants that path to success to be nice and clean and easy, but there’s a lot of ups and downs on that road.”

Year 1 of the “Coug Raid” hasn’t been nearly as smooth as fans hoped, so talk of future prospects might not do much to lift spirits right now. WSU reshaped its offense this offseason, introducing a new staff and a transfer quarterback. The Cougars seemed to have exciting potential at the receiver positions, though there were significant concerns about the inexperience at running back and on the offensive line. A large part of the lineup had to be rebuilt. At this point of the season, the offense features just two seniors – transfer receiver Robert Ferrel and transfer guard Grant Stephens – and seven first-year WSU starters.

WSU wasn’t expected to be some kind of offensive juggernaut, but the offense wasn’t expected to hold the Cougars back, either.

“Everything’s going to be a work in progress, as always,” slotback Lincoln Victor said. “Obviously, this is a new staff, but I don’t think that’s an excuse we lean on to (explain) what we’ve been producing on the field. I think it’s just a matter of time (until) the offense starts to jell and work as one unit.”

There have been signs of promise, noticeably so during WSU’s 4-1 start. The Cougars have lost three consecutive games since. Flashes of offensive consistency were sparse during the skid. WSU failed to reach 20 points in each of the past three games, averaging 13.6 ppg in that stretch. The Cougars went four consecutive quarters, between two games, without a TD.

Eliminating negative plays is the priority for WSU, which gave up 28 tackles for loss (including 15 sacks) across its last three showings.

“It’s always the case of 10 guys doing their job and one person (not),” Victor said. “It’s kinda everything that we’re dealing with right now. We just gotta get better at the end of the day – situational awareness, field awareness as a unit. I think, individually, we’re on different levels of play with the experience. We’re all young, but at the same time, it’s how you play as a unit. I think we gotta jell together better and work together better as a unit, just hold the negative plays.”

The offensive line is troubled. The ground game lacks options. The passing game isn’t stretching the field and has too often come up empty on short throws. WSU’s aerial attack is clearly missing senior receiver Renard Bell, a big-play threat who is out indefinitely due to an injury sustained Oct. 8 at USC.

The Cougars hope to find a spark Saturday against Stanford (3-5, 1-5), which ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in scoring defense (28.8 ppg) and total defense (417 yards per game).

“We’re sticking true to what we want to do,” Dickert said. “We haven’t fulfilled some of the expectations we had. We own that, and I think our offensive coaches are in there finding ways to make sure we’re getting better each and every week. We’ve been at a little bit of a standstill, but I’m excited about what we can do this week and where we’re going. Those guys haven’t allowed excuses to come in, because it weakens the mission. Players are taking ownership. Coaches are taking ownership, and we’re moving forward.”