PULLMAN – Washington State coach Jake Dickert acknowledged the expectations this season while pointing out that his football program “is still building.”
“And I think that’s important for everybody to understand,” he said. “I know sometimes I don’t get afforded that luxury, because I’ve been here, which is OK. But we’re building a program. No one said there was going to be instant success. I’m excited about where we’re at.”
After leading the Cougars to a postseason berth as interim coach last season, Dickert assembled a staff of proven assistants and a roster of intriguing potential.
The general notion among the Cougar faithful: Why shouldn’t WSU be a winning product again?
At the midway point of their first full season under Dickert, it’s fair to say the Cougars (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) have met that expectation. It appears they’ll be headed to another bowl game in 2022.
Of course, the new-look Cougars have flaws to sort out. But they’ve also proven to be a solid team at this early juncture of a new era for the program.
WSU has yet to reach its potential, “and that excites me,” Dickert said.
“I know you get six games in and there’s a lot of things to work on and some people are going to panic about that, but that’s why we got ‘coach’ on our sleeves,” he continued. “I challenged our staff … ‘Let’s go out and attack each and every week.’ We can grow in so many areas.
“We feel like we’re scratching the surface.”
In some respects, the Cougars seem ahead of schedule. In other aspects, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Here’s our midseason report card, grading the Cougars’ offense and defense:
No surprises here. Widely expected to be the strongest facet of the Cougars’ team, the defensive front has mostly lived up to its billing.
Without a doubt, the linebackers and defensive line have been WSU’s most effective position groups (they have been almost equally impressive, so we’re grading them as one unit).
Spearheaded by dynamic LB and D-line play, the Cougars rank fourth in the country in tackles for loss (49) and 11th in sacks (19).
The athletic linebackers are led by senior transfer Daiyan Henley, who is well on his way to an all-conference nod. An exceptionally deep defensive line rotates six edge rushers and four tackles at a steady rate . Brennan Jackson, a team captain, has emerged as one of the Pac-12’s best edge rushers.
WSU’s defensive front is well-stocked with depth and talent, and the unit has performed well in all but one game this season – Oregon’s fast-paced offense and veteran line got the best of the Cougars on Sept. 24.
WSU has made good use of LB blitzes and D-line stunts to disrupt its opponents. The Cougars are supplying more pressure than they did last season, when they managed just 21 sacks.
WSU showed some cracks in its rushing defense against the Ducks, USC and Wisconsin, but the Cougars have made clear strides in their ability to stop the run after struggling to contain potent ground games last season.
“It goes back to our interior defensive line playing at a higher level,” Dickert said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean making plays, but it’s doing your job and eating up blocks, so what we feel is one of the best linebacking corps in the conference can go out there and make some plays.”
The defensive front’s midseason grade might be a touch higher if the unit had forced more takeaways during the first half of the season. WSU has collected just seven turnovers after finishing with 29 last year. Linebackers and D-linemen came up with 14 takeaways in 2021. WSU’s 2022 defensive front has combined for four takeaways.
Lofty expectations surrounded QB Cameron Ward when he signed with the Cougars as a four-star transfer this offseason. It’s been a mixed bag or the sophomore – but more good than bad.
Occasionally, he looks like the pro-caliber QB that was promised. When he’s in a groove, Ward is an exciting player . His improvisational skills and arm strength/talent – his quick release and knack for completing off-balance throws – have been noted by many. Sometimes, he dices apart defensive backfields with efficient passes to all corners of the field. But his youth has shown up more often than WSU would like. Ward has made a few head-scratching decisions, leading to interceptions.
Through six games in his first season at the helm of WSU’s Air Raid offense, Ward has thrown for 1,617 yards and 15 touchdowns against seven picks on a 67.3% completion rate. He ranks third in the conference in passing yards (269.5 per game) and is tied for second in TD passes, but only one Pac-12 QB has thrown more interceptions this season.
“He’s been up and down,” offensive coordinator Eric Morris said. “Everybody’s seen it. He’s had his flashes of greatness and he’s had some flashes where it looks like he’s not ready yet.”
Like their quarterback, the Cougar receivers are experiencing mixed results. They have exhibited many positive signs yet have also toiled through stretches of sluggishness.
At times, the receivers have caused big problems for defensive backs. But they’ve been blanketed in a couple of games, including the 30-14 loss to USC last weekend.
“The receivers, it’s the same thing – consistency,” Morris said. “If we’re going to get man coverage, we’re going to have to beat man coverage and make some plays.”
WSU’s receiving corps suffered a major setback last weekend, when veteran slotback Renard Bell sustained an injury that will keep him out of the lineup indefinitely. Bell and Ward were just starting to click. The two linked up for 199 yards and a touchdown on 14 passes over the past two weeks.
Fortunately, the Cougars are deep at the receiver positions.
Three of the starters have proven themselves capable.
But WSU hasn’t really identified a top playmaker, a “game-breaking” type of receiver who consistently wins one-on-one matchups.
Outside receivers Donovan Ollie (333 yards, two touchdowns) and De’Zhaun Stribling (314 yards, four TDs) have been the most productive, but they’ve also been nonfactors in a few games. Transfer slot Robert Ferrel is on the rise. The senior tallied 208 yards and three touchdowns in his first four WSU games.
It’ll be difficult to make up for Bell’s absence, but there are enough talented options to feel OK about the receivers’ prospects for the rest of the year.
WSU has seen some of its most effective rushing plays when it sends two tight ends onto the field. Sophomore transfer Billy Riviere III is a stout blocker and true freshman Andre Dollar is finding his footing.
“Once we’ve gotten into some 12 personnel stuff (two-tight end sets) in the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to run the football pretty effectively in those situations,” Morris said. “I’m happy with where they’re at, blocking-wise. We need to get them involved in the passing game.”
Riviere owns all the receiving stats (42 yards, one TD, five catches) among Cougar tight ends, a position group that was reintroduced this season with Morris’ variation of the Air Raid offense – WSU’s offensive systems over the past decade didn’t include TEs.
WSU lost cornerback Jaylen Watson to the NFL after the 2021 season, and the Cougars’ best three safeties graduated. So, there was quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding WSU’s rebuilt secondary.
The defensive backs have been respectable – not great, but decent enough – this season.
Inexperience at the safety positions showed in WSU’s 44-41 loss to Oregon, which hurt the Cougars on downfield passes. They seem to miscommunicate occasionally in the backfield and lose sight of a receiver, but coverage breakdowns haven’t been much of a recurring issue.
“I’ve been happy in the last two weeks with the defense’s response,” Dickert said. “They’ve been a lot cleaner and we’ve controlled the explosive passing game. (USC) was an explosive team.”
The Cougars limited Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams to 188 yards on 15-of-29 passing.
WSU is giving up 260.8 pass yards per game – 10th in the Pac-12. It should be noted the Cougars held four opponents under 230 passing yards. WSU ranks 87th nationally and seventh in the conference in pass-defense efficiency rating.
Chau Smith-Wade, a first-year starter at cornerback, is leading the way.
The other Cougars corners are workable options.
WSU’s secondary will presumably improve as strong safety Jordan Lee nears full health. The senior transfer missed three games with an injury but returned to the field last weekend in a limited capacity. With Lee back, the Cougars will move freshman Jaden Hicks to the bench. Hicks can rotate behind Lee and free safety Sam Lockett III, a junior college transfer who hails from Spokane.
The Cougars seem to lack a ball-hawk in the backfield. Last year, the DBs registered 10 interceptions. WSU’s secondary has accounted for two picks this season.
WSU’s rushing game looked sharp in wins over lower-level opponents Idaho and Colorado State.
The Cougars mustered just 53 rushing yards against both Wisconsin and Oregon. They had only gained about 20 rushing yards before a late possession on Oct. 1 against Cal, finishing with 69 yards in the 28-9 win.
Sparked by true freshman Jaylen Jenkins, the Cougars’ ground game had a breakout performance against USC, totaling a season-high 144 yards. Jenkins picked up 130 yards on just 13 carries, bursting through slight gaps at the line and taking advantage of the Trojans’ light defensive box for a handful of big gains.
WSU’s Air Raid is a pass-first system. Lower rushing totals should be expected.
But the Cougars were hoping for more balance in their play-calling and production from their tailbacks when Morris introduced the offense.
Instead, negative runs have been common. Lanes have been hard to come by. The pressure has been on Ward and his receivers to lift the offense.
WSU sits at the bottom of the Pac-12 in rushing offense (100.5 yards per game) and attempts (154), and ranks 11th in yards per carry (3.9).
The Cougars will play without starting running back Nakia Watson (325 yards, two touchdowns, 64 attempts) for an indefinite stretch of time after he sustained an injury against USC.
Jenkins has a bright future. He’ll add a speed element to WSU’s rushing attack. Experience is scarce, though. Three freshmen – Kannon Katzer, Djouvensky Schlenbaker, Dylan Paine – are in contention for the backup role.
No position group caused more concern for fans this preseason than the Cougars’ offensive line, which had to replace three mainstays.
Some bright spots have emerged – Jarrett Kingston, for example, is managing well in his first season as WSU’s left tackle – but overall, the O-line hasn’t had the most encouraging first half to its season.
The Cougars have allowed a conference-high 20 sacks. Only eight teams in the FBS have surrendered more.
“We need to protect better,” Morris said. “That’s where it starts. We’re giving up too much pressure too early (on plays).”
Ward doesn’t often have time to sit back and scan the field. Tailbacks have run into walls at the line of scrimmage too frequently.
Depth is an issue up front. The Cougars’ second-string linemen lack playing experience.
With time, WSU’s first-team O-line could develop into a sturdy unit. Dickert is optimistic about its potential.
“The O-line is consistently getting better, even if it’s just small increments as we keep moving forward,” he said. “We just gotta be a little bit cleaner in the dropback passing game. Those guys are working hard to do it.”
But as of now, the new-look O-line is a work in progress