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Sports >  WSU football

Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Oregon State

Oct. 14, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 14, 2022 at 7:19 p.m.

Don’t take your eyes off …

Washington State’s offense will be shorthanded at its skill positions this weekend. The Cougars will also play without a starting guard for the first half of Saturday’s game against Oregon State, scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. at Reser Stadium.

Starting running back Nakia Watson and slot receiver Renard Bell went down with injuries in the first half of the Cougars’ 30-14 loss at No. 6 USC last weekend. Both will be sidelined for an indefinite stretch.

Right guard Grant Stephens was tagged with a targeting penalty in the second half versus the Trojans. By rule, the senior cannot play against OSU until the second half.

Who will step up?

When Washington State has the ball …

Bell’s leadership traits and explosive playmaking abilities are irreplaceable, but the Cougars feel confident in their remaining options at the receiver positions. Three receivers – outside receivers Donovan Ollie and De’Zhaun Stribling and slotback Robert Ferrel – have shown flashes of star potential.

“We know what (Bell) brings to the table,” Ollie said. “He’s still going to lead the group. … But we gotta make up for his loss.”

Junior Lincoln Victor started in the slot earlier this season but was relegated to the bench after an underwhelming first few showings. He is expected to return to the starting lineup. He’ll play alongside Ferrel, a senior transfer who took Victor’s job late last month. Ferrel accumulated 208 yards and three touchdowns on 20 receptions across his first four WSU games after missing the preseason and the first two weeks of the season due to a foot injury.

Filling in for Watson will be true freshman Jaylen Jenkins, the Pac-12’s reigning freshman of the week. Jenkins racked up 130 rushing yards on just 13 carries versus USC, adding 54 yards on two receptions.

“I think he accounted for every explosive play we had in that last game,” offensive coordinator Eric Morris said. “He’s really electric with the ball in his hands. … It’ll be interesting to see how he holds up through the course of a whole game, in between the tackles.”

The Cougars hope to get Jenkins “20 to 25 touches,” Morris said. Three other freshmen are in contention for relief duties.

WSU is shifting some pieces up front to compensate for Stephens’ absence. The Cougars will likely ask Fa’alili Fa’amoe to make his first-career start. Fa’amoe, a defensive lineman last season, worked at the guard and tackle positions during fall camp. He is listed as a backup tackle, but it’s uncertain where Fa’amoe will line up.

Coach Jake Dickert said the Cougars might put Fa’amoe at right tackle and shift starter Ma’ake Fifita to right guard for the first half – Fifita started at RG last season, then transitioned to RT this offseason.

“We’re going to have some different bodies in there this week, but those are never excuses,” Morris said. “This is big-time football, Power Five football. It’s the next guy up, so we’ll have some young bucks in there and hopefully, this is their chance and they can step up and make a play when we need them to.”

WSU’s offense sputtered late in the loss to USC. The Cougars were held scoreless in the second half. Quarterback Cameron Ward completed 7 of 16 passes after halftime.

The Cougars have been mostly ineffective on the ground this season.

Their O-line has surrendered conference highs in sacks (20) and tackles for loss (38). WSU’s aerial attack has been prolific at times. But the Cougars’ passing game is too often disjointed, and disrupted by pressure.

“Collectively, we just have to be more consistent,” Morris said. “I’m not happy with any of (the position groups), where we’re at right now.”

The Beavers are stout at the line of scrimmage, but the talent hasn’t yet translated to the stat sheet. They have produced just five sacks. OSU’s defensive front bottled up USC in a 17-14 Trojan win on Sept. 24.

OSU’s defensive strength lies in its pass coverage. The Beavers boast length and experience in their secondary. They rank 35th nationally in pass-defense efficiency.

“This will be one of our toughest tests yet, and we have to find a way to move the football,” Morris said. “Once we’ve gotten the ball into the red zone this year, we’ve been really, really good. So, we gotta get it down there and continue to punch it in.”

WSU has put up points on 95.7% of its red-zone possessions – 11th nationally. OSU’s red-zone defense allows scores just 70% of the time – 12th nationally.

When Oregon State has the ball …

The Oregonian reported that freshman quarterback Ben Gulbranson will start against WSU on Saturday night in place of Chance Nolan.

Earlier this month, Gulbranson entered in relief of starter Nolan, who suffered a neck injury during an Oct. 1 game at Utah, a 42-16 Beavers loss. Gulbranson, making his first career start, struggled to get OSU’s offense moving last weekend for three quarters against Stanford’s defense, which recorded four sacks to double its total on the season.

But Gulbranson turned it around in the final quarter and the Beavers rallied after entering the fourth quarter trailing by 14 points. He fired a 56-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Tre’Shaun Henderson with 13 seconds remaining and OSU eked out a 28-27 win over the Cardinal.

If Gulbranson makes his second career start Saturday, he’ll face a significantly tougher challenge. The strongest facet of their team, the Cougars’ defensive front will present more issues than Stanford. WSU ranks 11th nationally and second in the Pac-12 with 19 sacks.

The Cougars have registered 49 tackles for loss, good for fifth nationally and first in the conference.

“Their defense pressures the quarterback, whether they’re blitzing or just rushing their four guys,” Smith said of WSU. “This D-line is as good as we’ve played all season.”

The Beavers’ passing offense checks in at 10th in the Pac-12. Their ground game ranks fifth in the conference at 181 yards per game. Three OSU tailbacks have combined for 820 yards and eight touchdowns on 159 attempts. Jack Colletto, who takes snaps at several positions on both offense and defense, has run for four touchdowns on 11 carries.

“We spent Monday till midnight dealing with the package they have (for Colletto),” Dickert said. “He’s a unique talent and they’re using him a lot more, especially with one of their tight ends being out. … They get out of it exactly what they want.

“They want you spending time on those things for three or four plays a game.”

The Cougars had trouble containing powerful running backs in 2021. They gave up over 300 yards on the ground in their 31-24 win over OSU last season, but WSU has made clear strides in its rushing defense, which is conceding 110.3 yards per game – third in the Pac-12 and 24th in the FBS.

“This (game) will be kinda a check mark of where our interior defensive line is at,” Dickert said. “I do think this is the most physical offensive line that we’ve played.”

OSU has yielded just six sacks this season.

The Beavers have committed 11 turnovers, including a conference-most 10 interceptions. The Cougars are emphasizing takeaways. They have collected just seven this season after finishing with 29 last year.

WSU’s defense is playing at full health for the first game since the second week of the season. Senior strong safety Jordan Lee is set to return to the starting lineup and will play about 50 snaps, per Dickert, after being limited to 25 plays off the bench last weekend against USC.

Reser will be rocking

The Beavers are expecting a sellout crowd at Reser Stadium for the homecoming game. OSU’s home venue is undergoing renovations, but it can host about 29,000 fans. The Beavers went 6-0 at home last season.

They are 1-1 at Reser this year. They breezed past Boise State in their season opener and fell just short of upsetting USC on Sept. 24.

“This will be a great environment,” Morris said. “They’ve done a great job of being loud and creating an environment there the last couple of years.”

WSU is looking for its ninth consecutive win in its series with the Beavers. The Cougars haven’t lost in Corvallis since a 19-6 decision in 2012.

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