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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State rewind: Cameron Ward regroups, finishes strong to close out win over Cal

Oct. 2, 2022 Updated Sun., Oct. 2, 2022 at 8:50 p.m.

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward smiles between plays on Saturday in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward smiles between plays on Saturday in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Cameron Ward showed clear signs of frustration after he tossed his second red-zone interception of the game. But the Washington State quarterback regrouped and finished strong.

WSU’s offense, protecting a 14-3 lead against Cal midway through the third quarter on Saturday at Gesa Field, committed a potentially momentum-changing turnover on a second-down play from the Golden Bears’ 21-yard line. Ward rolled left, avoided a sack, then scrambled right and tried to force a pass into the end zone. The ball landed in the waiting arms of Cal safety Craig Woodson.

Ward was visibly displeased with himself as he headed to the sideline. A veteran teammate met him there with words of encouragement.

“I know how it feels to come off the field after turning the ball over and it’s all on you,” senior receiver Renard Bell said. “Just being there for somebody and putting an arm around him, ‘Hey, stuff happens. Especially as a quarterback, you’re going to throw some picks. It’s how you respond to that.’

“I told him, ‘If you need to have some time to yourself, there’s a tent over there.’ We walked over to the tent and let him let out his frustrations.”

Ward split from the team and collected himself in WSU’s injury tent. Bell, a seventh-year Cougar and by far the most experienced player on the team’s roster, stationed himself just outside and helped the young QB settle down.

“Having (Bell) in our locker room, having him on the sidelines always lifting me up when I’m going through bad times, it’s good to have,” Ward said.

Ward calmly emerged from the tent after a few minutes. He looked sharp for the rest of the game, completing 9 of his last 12 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns – one of them to Bell – to close out a 28-9 win over Cal.

“I’m proud of him,” Bell said.

A couple of drives after Ward’s interception, the Golden Bear offense finally broke through and punched in its first touchdown to cut WSU’s advantage to five points early in the fourth period. The Cougars had crumbled in crunch time the week prior in a loss to Oregon, but Ward quickly erased any fears of a late collapse against Cal.

The sophomore transfer responded with poise, leading a four-play scoring series that all but sealed the result. He connected with De’Zhaun Stribling on a third-and-4 screen play that went for 32 yards. On the next snap, Ward dialed up perhaps his best throw of the year, launching a rainbow pass deep down the near sideline toward Bell. The ball was placed precisely over Bell’s shoulder for a 37-yard TD.

“Perfect angle – just how I like it,” Bell said of the pass.

The Cougar defense forced Cal (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) into its fifth three-and-out of the game, and WSU (4-1, 1-1) milked four minutes off the clock on its ensuing possession, leaning on the ground game before Ward flipped a 1-yard TD to tight end Billy Riviere on fourth-and-goal.

Ward finished the game 27 of 40 for 343 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions. He was picked off midway through an offensive slog of a first half when he threw an errant pass into double coverage in the end zone.

“The first interception, you just gotta brush off. The second one just can’t happen,” Ward said. “For a quarterback, ball security is job security. I live by that every day. That’s something I didn’t do today. Just cleaning things up in the film room.”

WSU’s offense toiled in the first half. If it weren’t for a 34-yard punt return from Robert Ferrel, the Cougars might not have found the end zone before the break. But after halftime, Ward came out firing and the Cougars’ Air Raid picked up its pace. He led a one-minute touchdown drive to open the third quarter, connecting with Bell on a 47-yard strike before hitting Ferrel for a 17-yard score.

“You saw glimpses,” Dickert said of Ward’s showing. “I think it’s a learning process. I’m proud of him, because he had to gut some things out. When things go bad, and maybe look perceptually bad, you don’t make good decisions. He knows that. … He’ll be back and ready to learn, but to gut through it and come back and make some big-time throws, I thought that was really important and it shows his resolve.”

On the year, Ward has passed for 1,445 yards and 13 touchdowns against seven picks on a 68.6% completion rate. He ranks third in the Pac-12 in passing yardage, but has thrown more interceptions than any other conference QB. The Cougs have committed 12 turnovers this season against eight takeaways.

“We gotta do a better job as a team in our turnover margin,” Dickert said.

WSU didn’t force a turnover against Cal – the first game the Cougars failed to collect a takeaway since Oct. 23, 2021, against BYU. Otherwise, the Cougs’ defense had an exceptional effort on Saturday and gave its offense ample time to settle in. The Golden Bears punted nine times and their standout tailback, Jaydn Ott, managed 69 yards a week after piling up 274 in Cal’s 49-31 rout of Arizona.

“We knew we had to corral him,” Dickert said. “I think it played into our strengths. It was something that we wanted to defend (after last week) – that we’re a good defense, that we’re a good run-stopping defense.

“We got (Cal) behind the chains,” he added. “I thought we were on our heels the week before. Now, we’re the aggressor. Now, it’s second-and-long and we can pin our ears back. It starts with stopping the run, and we did that efficiently.”

The Bears crossed midfield on four possessions – two of those drives ended short of WSU’s 45-yard line. The Cougars were steadily disruptive up front and their secondary permitted only a few downfield passes. Dickert wanted to see more push this week from the Cougars’ defensive linemen. He thought WSU was relying too much on blitzes to generate pressure. The Cougars produced three of their four sacks against Cal with a four-man rush.

WSU’s defensive front struggled to provide push against Oregon’s offensive line on Sept. 24. The Cougar defense surrendered 626 yards and plenty of big gainers in the loss to the Ducks.

“That was a large emphasis for us this week. Just going back to the drawing board, watching film, we understood we can’t give up explosives like that,” nickel Armani Marsh said.

The Cougars had also made it a point to improve their downfield passing game. They totaled 11 passing plays that gained 15-plus yards, including three that picked up more than 30.

“It was a big emphasis,” said Bell, who topped all receivers with 115 yards on eight grabs. “We know, once we establish a deep-threat game, it opens up a lot of things, especially in the running game. … We practiced deep balls after practice every day this week.”

Aside from one first-quarter sack, the Cougars’ offensive line kept Ward clean. WSU’s O-line came into the game having allowed a conference-worst 14 sacks.

“I felt really comfortable today,” Ward said. “On one (play), I sat back there for like 20 seconds, just walking around.”

WSU’s tailbacks didn’t have much room to run until the late stages of the game. The Cougars were held under 30 rushing yards until their final scoring series – running backs Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins combined for 56 yards on the drive.

“When we run the ball, we can’t get into second-and-12,” Dickert said. “To Cal’s credit, they did a good job of doing things to limit the run game, but we need to move the ball forward. We’ve done it in flashes and bursts.”

The Cougars showed progress on third downs, converting 6 of 14 against Cal – three of those coming from third-and-10 or longer. WSU came into the game as one of the conference’s four least successful third-down teams, with a conversion rate of 38% .

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