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Sports >  WSU football

Commentary: Five Guys must keep Cougars from being sandwiched

Oct. 22, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 22, 2022 at 6:23 p.m.

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

There is an apocryphal story passed around by sportswriters at The Spokesman-Review. Well, there are many, but this one is actually true. It is about a photographer for the paper who for some reason or another was on assignment in Florida. This guy was a real throwback, all about his equipment and his art. He could fix any car or camera with nothing but a multitool, and the finer frills of road life with an expense account were lost on this shooter.

In fact, on this particular trip our hero subsisted exclusively on the burger chain Five Guys. Breakfast, lunch and late-night snack. He ate so much Five Guys that the S-R accountants refused to reimburse him, not because the expense was so great, but because they simply did not believe one human being could have so many burgers (and peanuts).

What does this story have to do with the Cougars? Well, like this photographer, their survival is also entirely dependent on five guys: the five offensive linemen whose performance will decide whether or not WSU’s 2022 football season is memorable or mediocre.

Washington State has stumbled into the bye week with a pair of losses that has the Cougars sitting at 4-3 while they take this weekend to restock, recover and reevaluate their best chances of success in the season’s second half.

The coaches do not need to worry about the defense, which has performed admirably all season against some good offenses. But last week’s loss to Oregon State was a coal miner’s canary for the offensive line, which allowed fairly mobile quarterback Cameron Ward to be sacked six times.

WSU is getting little production from its wall up front. Ward is now sacked more often than any of his Pac-12 counterparts, and WSU’s rushing attack only outranks lowly Colorado in average yards per rush. Tellingly, WSU is among the conference’s worst teams on converting third- and fourth-down attempts, and WSU ranks dead last in average time of possession.

Former WSU coach and quarterback whisperer Mike Leach liked to surprise people by telling them his favorite position is offensive line, which he also considers the most important. The line is the engine that makes everything go.

At this point in the season, it is probably fair to say that highly touted transfer quarterback Ward is a pretty talented, if not an elite, all-conference player at the position. Over the season’s first half, we have simultaneously watched Ward improve his individual play, while his ability to produce decreases along with his confidence in the pocket.

The thing about sacks and quarterback pressure is they compound; they are like body blows to a boxer. They matter when they occur, but they matter even more later. We can see in real time as Ward’s internal clock speeds up, as the impressive arm strength matters less and less as he goes into flight mode the second he receives the snap. It does not matter how far Ward can throw it if he feels the need to scramble before his receivers can get downfield.

Offensive line improvement is likely to be determinative to the outcome of at least one or two games over the course of this season, and in this transition year the difference between winning six games or seven is immense.

Even with the recent struggles, the Cougars are not a bad team – far from it – and all three losses have come against good teams, with the two recent ones coming on the road. But the window is closing on the opportunity for WSU to have a superlatively good year in Jake Dickert’s first season at the helm, and to generate some extra momentum for the program as it builds.

Hype and vibes matter in college football in 2022. Lots of talented players transfer, and recruits have financial reasons to consider how much sizzle a program has in the name, image and likeness era. When WSU was 3-0 and oh-so-close to being ranked in the Top 25, the Cougars had juice.

Dickert won at Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 19, and within weeks was being named as a potential replacement coach for the Badgers. The team was undefeated and up on Oregon and there was a real sense of destiny around the program. Those vibes attract viewers, they impress TV executives who are the gatekeepers of exposure, and they have a real impact on a team’s ability to sign talented football players.

But there is no sizzle around a team when it scores just 10 points, no matter how solid the defense plays. WSU has a good quarterback and sufficient skill position talent around him to put up points on anyone. Whether or not they do so depends on the five guys in front of the QB, and whether the offensive line can unlock the rest of the offense’s potential.

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