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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State rewind: Cougs’ ground game, offensive line and turnover-forcing defense highlight blowout of Stanford

Nov. 6, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 7, 2022 at 4:03 p.m.

Washington State running back Nakia Watson breaks into open field during the second quarter of a Pac-12 game against Stanford on Saturday in Stanford, Calif. Watson registered a career-high 166 rushing yards in the Cougars' 52-14 win.  (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Washington State running back Nakia Watson breaks into open field during the second quarter of a Pac-12 game against Stanford on Saturday in Stanford, Calif. Watson registered a career-high 166 rushing yards in the Cougars' 52-14 win. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

STANFORD, Calif. – The Washington State Cougars are taking high spirits into the home stretch of their season coming off what linebacker Daiyan Henley called a “bonanza” of a day in the Bay Area.

“This high, we’re trying to ride it as long as we can,” Henley said.

WSU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) snapped out of a midseason funk and came away with a positive outlook for the rest of its campaign, stomping Stanford 52-14 on Saturday.

“Winning is a magic elixir,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said after WSU wrapped up its most complete game of the year, and its most lopsided win ever against the Cardinal. “It just grows so much confidence and belief.”

One win away from bowl eligibility, the Cougars have momentum at their backs ahead of a home game Saturday against Arizona State (3-6, 2-4).

First, let’s put the finishing touches on WSU’s romp at The Farm.

Cougars ground game, offensive line stand out

Running backs and the offensive line had been WSU’s two least consistent position groups throughout the season. But the Cougars’ ground game and blocking efforts were the most impressive features of the team’s offensive performance versus Stanford (3-6, 1-6).

The Cougars came into the game ranked last in the Pac-12 in every rushing category and second-to-last nationally in total rushing attempts (193). They had been held under 100 rushing yards in five games. WSU entered the week having allowed a conference-most 30 sacks.

Few could have predicted such a standout day from the Cougars’ tailbacks and big men up front.

WSU had its best rushing day in 16 years. The Cougars didn’t give up a sack. They hadn’t finished a game sack-free since their Apple Cup win over Washington last season.

The Cougars piled up 306 rushing yards and averaged 8.1 yards per try. It marked WSU’s fifth 300-yard rushing game since 2000 and most rushing yards in a game since tallying 344 against Idaho in 2006.

“The major part of it was Nakia (Watson) coming back,” Dickert said.

The Cougars’ starting tailback had missed the past two games after sustaining an injury Oct. 8 versus USC. With Watson sidelined, WSU’s ground game struggled to find a spark.

The junior made the most of his return to the lineup, recording 166 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. He broke off a 65-yard run on WSU’s second play from scrimmage and capped the first half with a 41-yard scoring scamper. At halftime, he was already up to 148 yards.

It was a career day for Watson, and also one of the brightest showings from a Cougars tailback in recent memory. Watson generated the most productive rushing output for a WSU RB since Dwight Tardy churned out 214 yards versus UCLA in 2007. Watson’s 65-yarder was the longest run for a WSU tailback since Marcus Mason’s 65-yarder against Idaho State in 2011.

“I’ve seen that kid since the USC game in the training room five times a day, wanting to be out there and constantly pressing,” Dickert said of the former Wisconsin reserve. “He was himself today. He gave us a jump-start, and credit to our offensive line.”

WSU kept Watson’s status under wraps throughout the week. The Cougars were planning to lean on the ground game all along, considering Stanford’s porous rushing defense. The Cardinal had allowed 300-plus rushing yards in two games and yielded more than 150 yards on the ground in every game except one.

The Cougars saw it as an opportunity to get right on the ground.

“We knew, coming into the game, that Stanford wasn’t strong against the run,” Dickert said. “We had to come in there and take advantage.”

Negative plays were a major issue for WSU during its three-game skid – the Cougars were stopped in the backfield on 28 plays, including 15 sacks. Stanford totaled just five tackles for loss.

Dickert expects WSU’s ground game to return to full strength Saturday, when the Cougars host Arizona State.

Backup running back Jaylen Jenkins (306 yards, three total TDs) missed the Stanford game after suffering an injury in the first half of WSU’s loss to Utah on Oct. 27.

“We’re gonna get Jaylen back next week,” Dickert said.

The coach didn’t have an update on left tackle Jarrett Kingston, who went down with a lower-body injury early in the second quarter Saturday. The Cougars’ best lineman and one of the five highest-graded tackles in the Pac-12, according to Pro Football Focus, Kingston couldn’t put weight on his right foot as he was helped off the field.

WSU made a midgame adjustment up front, shifting a couple of pieces to make up for Kingston’s absence. Left guard Christian Hilborn filled in at left tackle – Hilborn was a backup tackle as a true freshman last season.

“Major credit to Christian Hilborn, with limited reps, to go out there and flip and play tackle,” Dickert said. “It’s big-time for our football team.”

Ma’ake Fifita took over at left guard. Fifita, who played right guard last year, started WSU’s first six games of the year at right tackle but was sent to the bench last month.

“I give a lot of credit to Ma’ake for staying ready, staying mature, being a competitor and wanting to get better,” Dickert said. “He knew, at one point, we were going to need him, and that time was now.”

Early in the game against Stanford, the Cougars rotated two players at the right tackle position – starter Fa’alili Fa’amoe and right guard Grant Stephens, who played tackle over the past three seasons at Northern Colorado. Fifita got some work at right guard. After Kingston exited the lineup, Stephens returned to RG for good and Fa’amoe shouldered responsibilities at RT.

Despite all the movement, WSU’s O-line had “by far their best game” of the year.

“Talk about a group that’s been challenged constantly over the last 10 months,” Dickert said of the group, which lost several key players after the 2021 season and came into this year lacking depth and shrouded in uncertainties. “They weathered the storm. They’re passionate about what they do. They’re prideful. They see where they can get better.”

Coming off its three roughest outings of the season, WSU’s offense erupted for 514 yards – the team’s highest output in three years. The Cougars were clicking early in an up-tempo system featuring clever play designs and sharp execution. They rang up 21 points and more than 200 yards across their first three possessions.

WSU’s offense started to lose steam in the second quarter, leading 21-7, but the Cougars defense used turnovers to relieve the pressure.

Defense emphasizes turnovers

In 2021, WSU’s defense had a breakthrough season. The unit’s distinguishing trait last year: racking up takeaways.

The Cougars collected 29 turnovers, finishing the season ranked fifth nationally in that stat category. WSU expected its turnover-forcing proficiency to carry over into the 2022 season.

Through eight games, that hadn’t been the case – the Cougars came up with eight takeaways, mustering just three turnovers across their first five Pac-12 contests.

Boosting that number had been the primary emphasis for WSU’s defense in recent weeks.

“(Defensive coordinator Brian Ward) has taken it upon himself to incorporate turnover drills in practice and to make sure it’s known that this is a major and fundamental part of our game,” Henley said. “Rather than just making stops … let’s impact the game by taking the ball away. Coach Dickert reinforces that through our meetings.”

Against Stanford, the Cougars returned to form, using turnovers to deflate Stanford’s offense and turn the game into an extremely lopsided affair in the second quarter.

WSU forced and recovered four fumbles in the first half alone, converting three of those turnovers into touchdowns in opening up a 35-point lead at the half.

Stanford coughed up possession on four of five possessions during one stretch between the late stages of the first quarter and the midway point of the second period.

Fast-improving freshman linebacker Francisco Mauigoa ripped the ball away from Stanford tailback Mitch Leigber late in the first quarter. The Cougars offense couldn’t do anything with that takeaway, so Mauigoa tried again.

Two Cardinal drives later, he punched the ball out of Stanford QB Ashton Daniels’ grasp. This time, the offense didn’t need to capitalize. WSU’s defense did the work itself. Freshman safety Jaden Hicks chased down the bouncing ball, plucked it off the turf and raced 17 yards untouched for a scoop-and-score.

Cougars cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who has quietly emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive backs, forced fumbles on each of the Cardinal’s next two possessions. WSU’s offense didn’t waste those opportunities.

“We came into this weekend like, ‘Let’s attack the ball like we had at practice,’ ” said Henley, who recovered two of the fumbles. “The emphasis was there. The team took it very seriously, and it shows. I’m proud to be a part of such a spike.”

WSU’s surge in takeaways was no coincidence. The Cougars defense produced “a lot of turnovers” throughout the week of practice, said linebacker Travion Brown, and “that carried over to the game.”

“We practiced getting the ball out, stripping the ball, tips and overthrows, interceptions – mainly just trying to rip at the ball, punch the ball out, just finishing on the ball and making sure, any way possible, that the ball is on the ground,” he added. “Then, when the ball is on the ground, we’re all running and rallying to the ball and making sure we get on top of it.”

For Dickert, WSU’s defensive performance Saturday brought back memories of the Cougars’ success in 2021 – particularly their Oct. 30, 2021, game at Arizona State, during which WSU snatched five takeaways, including three fumble recoveries. The Cougars totaled 12 fumble recoveries last season.

“Our guys got the ball out, and not just getting the ball out – that’s one thing,” he said. “But the effort to get there and constantly get it is a whole ’nother thing. It reminded me of that (Arizona State) game. That creates momentum for the offense, that gets the easy scores. That’s what we’ve been talking about, just missing a little bit of it with our defense. Our defense has been very strong, but to now (produce turnovers), where you can create offense … was key to this football game.”

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