PULLMAN – Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward threw just four incompletions against Utah.
So the passing game was a strong point of the Cougars’ performance, right?
Not exactly. In this case, completion percentage is a misleading statistic.
On paper, Ward’s 27-for-31 passing line looks impressive. Without having watched the game, one would probably see the stat and assume the Cougars were efficient and productive through the air on Thursday night at Gesa Field.
In reality, WSU’s aerial attack produced more frustration than anything, considering the amount of receptions that resulted in negative plays or negligible gains during the team’s 21-17 loss to No. 14 Utah.
Twenty of Ward’s passes, counting incompletions, traveled 5 yards or less. Eleven of his completions were caught behind the line of scrimmage. Five of those receptions would have been more beneficial for the Cougars had they been incompletions – the Utes swarmed WSU receivers on those plays, recording five of their 10 tackles for loss on the night.
Slotback Robert Ferrel turned one behind-the-line catch into a 9-yard gain, his best play of the game. Ferrel’s stat line tells the story: a team-high eight receptions for just 26 yards.
Other than that 9-yard blip, none of the passes caught in the backfield worked out well for the Cougars, who refused to move away from the strategy. Utah wasn’t fooled by WSU’s constant use of screen passes and quick outs.
“We gotta find a way to execute better in the moment and not get ourselves behind the chains,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said after the game. “Negative plays are constantly stopping (us). We’re not good enough to overcome that right now.”
Before the season, there was much talk of WSU’s potential in the passing game. But the Cougars’ inability to stretch the field – and their heavy reliance on short throws – has been a glaring issue at times.
WSU (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) is in the midst of a midseason slump, a three-game skid. The offense is shouldering the bulk of the blame, and rightfully so. The Cougars averaged 13.6 points across their past three games. They totaled 264 yards (222 passing) against Utah – WSU’s lowest yardage output since its Week 2 win at Wisconsin (253).
“Offensively, we’re just not doing anything well to lean our hat on right now,” Dickert said. “It’s not being able to run the ball … negative plays, not being able to take it down the field.
“Right now, it’s just ineffective play and not being able to keep the chains moving.”
Expanding on the reasons behind WSU’s offensive woes, Dickert pointed to multiple factors.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “It starts with us, as coaches. The No. 1 deal, as a coach, is to put players in the best situation possible.”
Fingers are being pointed at the Air Raid offense installed by first-year offensive coordinator Eric Morris. The system seems to rely heavily on screens and short passes toward the sidelines. Ward’s job is to deliver the ball quickly to playmakers in space. As seen Thursday, the Cougars are coming up empty on too many of those designed passing plays.
“(We were) just taking what they give us,” Ward said of the Utah game. “We added a lot more (receiver) motions this week, just trying to get the ball to the perimeter a lot more. Just staying consistent to the offense.”
The Cougars won’t be making “wholesale” changes, Dickert said.
“We’re committed to what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re excited about where we’re going to go, but it’s (about) trying to find ways to get our best players the ball in space. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
WSU’s offense appeared to make progress earlier this season. The Cougars registered more than 400 yards in three consecutive games, starting on Sept. 17. During wins over Colorado State and Cal, and a high-scoring loss to Oregon, WSU fans got a taste of the team’s potential. But the Cougars’ offense went cold in the second half of a loss to USC on Oct. 8 and hasn’t recovered since.
Without a doubt, injuries have played a significant part.
Earlier this year, the Cougars could count on senior receiver Renard Bell to spark the offense. Now, they’re missing a big-play threat. Bell went down with an arm injury against USC and is out indefinitely.
WSU is limited at the running back position. Starter Nakia Watson also sustained an injury versus the Trojans and will be sidelined for an undetermined stretch.
Reserve Kannon Katzer transferred out of the program a couple of weeks ago. Second-string tailback Jaylen Jenkins missed the second half against Utah with an undisclosed injury. That left redshirt freshman walk-on Dylan Paine, who took on the first-team role just two weeks after making his offensive debut.
Utah played without star QB Cameron Rising and its two best tailbacks.
“At the end of the day, it’s that time of the year,” Dickert said.
Without Bell and Watson, the Cougars are down two key playmakers and two veteran voices in the huddle. WSU’s offense, which includes plenty of youth and inexperience at this level, seems to be lacking an on-field leader who can rally the troops when energy is declining.
That wasn’t an issue last season, when WSU’s offensive lineup featured senior leadership across the field – the slotback tandem of Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris; senior tailbacks Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh; four-year starters and vocal captains on the offensive line in tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan.
The Cougars’ 2022 offense is still searching for an identity and stability – the offensive line especially. WSU restructured its O-line this offseason after losing several pieces following the 2021 season. The Cougars gave up 15 sacks through their first five games, then surrendered another 15 across their past three contests. They rank last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed.
For Ward, there’s plenty of room to grow, particularly in terms of his decision-making, but it’s difficult for a young QB to settle in when he’s facing pressure at such a high rate.
Protection issues are limiting WSU’s ability to stretch the field. Ward usually can’t afford to sit back and wait for deep routes to develop. He hasn’t had much support from his receivers in recent weeks, either. Separation between Cougars receivers and defensive backs was minimal throughout WSU’s past three games, against three of the better secondaries in the Pac-12 – USC, Oregon State and Utah.
The Cougars are experimenting with personnel adjustments on the O-line and in the receiving corps. They started freshman Fa’alili Fa’amoe at right tackle on Thursday, sending junior Ma’ake Fifita to the bench.
The ground game isn’t offering much relief for the passing offense. WSU managed 65 rushing yards in its past two games combined. The Cougars sit last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. Ward led the team against Utah with 28 yards and a TD on 12 attempts (counting four sacks).
“It’s been hard, because the pockets haven’t been clean all the time,” Dickert said.
“He’s probably had to move and get antsy. I thought he settled in the pocket a little bit better (versus Utah), took the ones that were there.”
Mostly, they were short and ineffective. Five completions produced between 5 and 10 yards. Ward completed seven passes that went for gains of 10-plus yards. Ward went 3 of 4 on passes that traveled more than 20 yards. He hit De’Zhaun Stribling for a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter to open the scoring and connected with freshman backup Tsion Nunnally on a 39-yard strike, which set up a fourth-quarter TD.
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