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Sports >  WSU football

Cougars offensive skill players sustain injuries; backup tailback shines in loss at USC

Oct. 9, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 10, 2022 at 4:04 p.m.

LOS ANGELES – Washington State’s starting running back went down with an injury during the Cougars’ 30-14 loss to sixth-ranked USC.

But the backup tailback’s performance on Saturday at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum should provide some level of encouragement for WSU fans.

True freshman Jaylen Jenkins sparkled in relief of junior Nakia Watson, who was shaken up while blocking on a kick return late in the second quarter. Watson disappeared from the Cougars’ sideline for a while, then reappeared late in the third quarter wearing street clothes and walking with a limp.

WSU’s ground game was ineffective early on, but Jenkins gave a spark late in the opening period. He showed off his quick burst and impressive top-end speed, darting through slight gaps in the line of scrimmage for two big runs to kick-start WSU’s first scoring series. Even before Watson’s injury, WSU looked often to Jenkins, whose acceleration and elusive running style seemed to catch the Trojans off guard.

Jenkins totaled 130 yards – a season-high for WSU running backs – on a career-high 13 carries, averaging 10 yards per try. He broke off runs of 41, 28, 21 and 19 yards.

“You see the type of game-breaking speed he has in the open field,” Dickert said of Jenkins, a 5-foot-8, 177-pounder out of prep powerhouse Allen High in Texas. “There’s been glimpses of it this year, but for him to get his knees up and break some of those tackles and go, it was a great performance by Jaylen.”

Jenkins added two receptions for 54 yards, including a highlight-reel, 45-yard snag early in the second quarter. WSU quarterback Cameron Ward underthrew the pass, but Jenkins adjusted his deep sideline route and hauled it in despite a defensive pass interference penalty. Jenkins’ legs were taken out from under him just as the ball arrived in his hands. WSU scored on a play-action pass to Watson two plays later. In two quarters, Watson totaled 13 yards on two rushes, in addition to seven yards and a TD on two catches.

Jenkins had been used infrequently over the past five weeks. His most productive game came against Cal on Oct. 1. He rushed for 41 yards and a touchdown on five carries.

Jenkins had registered 127 rushing yards and one TD on 24 attempts before his breakout game Saturday in L.A. Perhaps he’s earned an expanded workload going forward. Jenkins adds a dynamic element to WSU’s tailback position, which has produced underwhelming results this season.

“He’s worked hard to get to this point, and to do it on this stage – he’s never flinched,” Dickert said. “As a true freshman, he’s been ready to go from Day 1. I think this is another step in his journey and as we keep going, we gotta make sure he’s ready to go.”

Dickert didn’t have an update on Watson after the game. The status of veteran receiver Renard Bell is also up in the air.

Bell, a seventh-year slotback, exited the lineup early in the game and emerged from the locker room after halftime with his right arm in a sling.

“It takes a toll on the offense as a whole, but we know it’s ‘next man up,’ ” Ward said when asked about the injuries.

It’s unclear how Bell sustained the injury. The L.A. native touched the ball three times: a 23-yard return on the opening kickoff, a sweep play on WSU’s first drive, which went for a loss of 4 yards and a 14-yard kick return midway through the first quarter. Bell’s absence clearly had adverse effects on WSU’s passing game. The Cougars had lost a downfield threat who is also their top playmaker on screens and quick passes.

“He’s our middle-of-the-field speed guy,” Dickert said. “He makes people miss. We had a lot of things designed for Renard in space. It just wasn’t the same with him down, but I’m proud of the guys that came in. Orion Peters made some plays (two catches for 12 yards) and Rob Ferrel battled through the whole game (three catches for 15 yards and a TD).

“We just didn’t ever get comfortable enough to take the ball down the field and get (USC) off of play-action.”

If Bell remains sidelined for the Oregon State game, the Cougars will presumably roll with slotbacks Ferrel and Lincoln Victor – a starter earlier this season who was replaced by Ferrel in the first-team offense Oct. 1 versus Cal.

WSU’s aerial attack operated with some efficiency in the first half, but Ward couldn’t shake the offense out of a funk in the second half, completing 7 of 16 passes for 49 yards.

“We just had bad plays, whether it’s a penalty, whether it’s a bad read on my part, whether it’s one of the receivers missing a read,” Ward said. “We just weren’t in the right spots at the right time. I felt like, as the game kept going, we just didn’t execute at a high level at certain points of the game.”

The Cougars were held scoreless in the second half and managed 135 yards – 60 on two Jenkins runs. Take out Jenkins’ carries of 41 and 19 yards, and the Cougars averaged 2.7 yards per play in the second half. WSU gained less than 30 yards on three of five second-half possessions, but didn’t commit a turnover for the first time this season.

“We just didn’t have an opportunity to keep things moving and play with tempo,” Dickert said. “It was just little things here and there. It’s never one thing.”

The short and intermediate routes were covered up, and Ward felt pressure from a USC defense that totaled five sacks and forced three punts – and a turnover on downs – in the second half.

“The run game and explosive runs was the big story of the second half,” Dickert said. “That allowed us to maintain some momentum throughout the game, but it wasn’t enough to really punch it in. We just didn’t get those drives going in the second half.”

WSU’s depth chart suffered another setback late in the third quarter when right guard Grant Stephens was ejected for targeting. Because of the penalty, the senior Northern Colorado transfer will miss the first half of WSU’s game at OSU this weekend.

Trying to buy time for Ward, who was scrambling around in the backfield and scanning the field, Stephens lowered his pads and connected with a USC defender’s shoulder. Officials considered the block “forcible contact to the head/neck area,” sending Stephens to the locker room early and bringing up a third-and-23 for WSU. The Cougars, trailing by 10, reached the Trojans’ 38-yard line on that series, but the penalty killed the possession. USC scored a field goal on the ensuing drive, which spanned 7:27 and deflated WSU’s hopes of a comeback.

The Cougars lack depth on their offensive line. Playing experience is scarce among the backups. Sophomore Quinn McCarthy, making his second career appearance on WSU’s offensive line, finished the game at right guard.

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