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Washington State rewind: Cougars’ close win over Idaho produces mixed reactions

Washington State running back Nakia Watson (25) carries the ball against the Idaho Vandals during the second half of the Battle of the Palouse football game on Saturday at Martin Stadium in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State opened the Jake Dickert era with a victory, but the win produced mixed reactions, to say the least.

The Power Five Cougars were given a scare from their FCS neighbors at Idaho in a remarkably well-contested Battle of the Palouse game on Saturday night. WSU survived the upset bid, eking out a 24-17 decision.

Of course, that result won’t do much to inspire the WSU fan base heading into a significant nonconference matchup in Week 2.

The Cougars fielded a strong defense, but performed inconsistently otherwise. They’ll need to fine-tune in several facets before meeting ranked Wisconsin on the road.

To get a better sense of where they stand early this season, let’s break down the good and bad from their opener.

What worked …

As expected, WSU’s talent-packed defensive front harassed the Vandal offense throughout the night.

The Cougars rotated six edge rushers. All of them were effective in rattling Idaho’s quarterback and containing its running backs – especially star edge Brennan Jackson, who came away with one of the Cougars’ seven sacks but had a steady presence in the backfield. Three veteran WSU tackles and one new face, redshirt freshman David Gusta, split snaps in the middle and supplied consistent push, helping the Cougars hold Idaho to just 1.8 yards per carry on 34 rushing attempts.

“To have a front four that I know I can trust and depend on to make plays and make it easier for me – life is just mellow,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “Sometimes, I just want to take a seat back there. … It’s a pleasure to have those guys up there in front of me and balling like that.”

WSU’s seven sacks were the team’s most in one game since 2017. The Cougars recorded 12 tackles for loss – their most in a game in seven years.

Edge rushers Jackson, Ron Stone Jr. and Andrew Edson combined for 3½ sacks.

But the Cougars shared production in the backfield.

Henley starred in his first game as a Cougar, tallying a sack and three TFLs. DBs Armani Marsh and Jaden Hicks contributed sacks, and safety Jordan Lee made a couple of nice stops behind the line as the Cougars defenders swarmed to the ball all game.

WSU disguised its pressure packages and dialed up creative looks on passing downs, often trotting out four edge rushers on its “Cheetah” D-line and sending either a linebacker or a defensive back on a blitz.

WSU, a top-five team nationally last year in forcing turnovers, collected two timely takeaways: cornerback Chau Smith-Wade’s interception late in the second quarter, which set up a game-tying field goal, and Henley’s game-sealing interception just in front of the goal line with 10 seconds left on the clock.

Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy was held under 100 yards passing until late in the game. He threw for 116 yards on his final two series.

The Vandals went lifeless late in the first quarter and couldn’t find any flow offensively until five minutes into the fourth period. The Cougars’ defense didn’t show many cracks across eight consecutive Idaho possessions – the visitors from Moscow netted just 70 yards on 39 plays in that stretch. That gave WSU’s offense time to find its footing after a sloppy start and put up 24 straight points.

“It boosted our confidence a lot … knowing we’d get the ball back in two or three minutes,” quarterback Cameron Ward said of the defense. “I feel like they played their butts off today. They definitely kept us in the game.”

Overall, it was an encouraging opener for first-year coordinator Brian Ward and a WSU defensive unit that emerged last season as one of the Pac-12’s strongest. To be sure, Saturday’s game didn’t provide an accurate measuring stick for the Cougars defense, which had major advantages in speed, size and depth over the underdog FCS squad from Idaho. We’ll get a clearer picture of the team’s defensive potential next weekend, when the Cougars face 18th-ranked Wisconsin and its powerful ground game in Madison.

It was a much less inspiring debut for WSU’s new Air Raid, but the Cougars showed a few flashes of their offensive capabilities.

They settled into a groove late in the second quarter and operated efficiently out of the up-tempo offense on three consecutive scoring possessions, gaining a combined 166 yards on 24 plays in just under seven minutes to erase a 10-0 deficit and take a seven-point lead.

“We want to play at a tempo, we want to score fast,” Dickert said. “We got an opportunity to see that a couple of times as we went through the game. We just need more consistency.”

Ward passed 14 of 18 for 140 yards and two TDs in that stretch, distributing quick-release throws toward the sidelines to spark WSU’s offense after a sluggish start. The touted transfer QB couldn’t sustain that pace in his first game at WSU, yet he did give Cougars fans a glimpse of his unique arm talent and improvisational skill.

This version of the Air Raid features a healthy use of the ground game, and the Cougars fared well when they fed the ball to tailback Nakia Watson – save a fumble on WSU’s first series of the fourth quarter.

Watson fought for extra yardage and totaled a career-high 117 yards on 18 carries (6.5 yards per attempt). The Cougars’ offensive line impressed on run calls against its undersized opponents, opening wide lanes for Watson to scurry through.

“Nakia had the one fumble, but I think he ran like the guy that we feel like he can be, between the tackles,” Dickert said. “I thought the offensive line, for the most part, played really well.”

Idaho had to respect WSU’s running game, and that led to perhaps the Cougars’ best offensive highlight of the night. The Vandals bit on a fake toss to Watson in the third quarter, and Ward fired a 13-yard score to an uncovered De’Zhaun Stribling to fashion a 17-10 lead.

A couple of individual bright spots for WSU’s offense: Slot receiver Renard Bell opened the scoring for the Cougars with a short TD reception in the second quarter. The seventh-year senior sustained an ACL injury in summer 2021. He was playing his first game since December 2020. Freshman running back Jaylen Jenkins coughed up a fumble on his first collegiate carry, but he responded in the fourth quarter with his first collegiate TD on an 8-yard sidearm pass from Ward.

“We talked about it at halftime, ‘Let’s go back to Jaylen,’ ” Dickert said. “He’s gonna keep providing that spark. He’ll learn and grow from that. We gotta continue to run the football … and Jaylen will be a big part of that.”

Dickert was proud of his team for staying composed and answering a tougher-than-anticipated challenge from its border rivals, who played a spirited opener under first-year coach Jason Eck.

“This test we got is going to help us throughout the season, it really is,” Dickert said. “We got to see a little bit of what we’re made of. … We survived a lot of their best things. That could’ve went completely the other way. You gotta take some positives that we hung in there and had the mentality not to panic.

“When we watch film Monday morning, there’s going to be a lot to learn from this.”

What needs work …

The “Coug Raid” offense had a nightmarish start in its inaugural game. Jenkins lost a fumble on WSU’s sixth play from scrimmage. Receiver Donovan Ollie lost another on the Cougars’ seventh play. Ollie was stripped by Idaho cornerback Marcus Harris after making a short catch near the sideline. Harris scooped it up and had nothing but open field in front of him.

The Vandals’ early score changed the direction of the game. It seemed to have a deflating effect on WSU’s offense for the next several drives – the Cougars moved 27 yards on three series, which ended in two punts and a missed 51-yard field goal.

“Just bad play, all around,” Ward said. “I don’t think we’re all feeling too good right now. We know we didn’t play our best ball … but come Wisconsin, you’re going to see a different offense.”

WSU’s All-Pac-12 first-team kicker had been dialed in throughout fall camp, but Dean Janikowski couldn’t come through in a crucial moment, missing a game-clinching 23-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter to give Idaho one final chance at tying the score. The Cougars’ offense had failed to cross the plane on two running plays inside Idaho’s 5-yard line.

The Vandals saved their best offense for late, or maybe WSU saved its worst defense for late. In any case, Idaho amassed 127 yards and McCoy passed 8 of 12 for 114 yards on the team’s final two possessions. The first drive included a fourth-and-long conversion and ended in a 23-yard TD pass after WSU cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. was beaten in man coverage. Idaho threatened to send the game into overtime, but Henley put an end to that possibility with a pick.

Yards were mostly hard to come by for the Vandals. But they took advantage of the occasional breakdown in WSU’s pass coverage – Vandal slot Jermaine Jackson got behind the Cougars secondary for catches of 42, 35 and 28 yards.

“Unfortunately, when they did go down the field, they hit,” Dickert said. “That was the majority of their yards throughout the game.”

Idaho only needed three successful possessions to keep the game close as the Cougars’ offense worked through disjointed stretches and struggled to string together drives.

After putting up 17 points on three consecutive scoring series, WSU’s Air Raid slipped into a slump and went nowhere during the ensuing three possessions, punting twice and losing another fumble.

Ward didn’t appear incredibly comfortable in his Cougar debut. He misfired high on a handful of passes and sometimes lingered too long in the backfield. He took three sacks. Ward didn’t get a ton of help from his pass-catchers, either. He had to stick mostly to short and intermediate routes – Ward threw 40 passes and accumulated just 215 yards. The separation between WSU receivers and Idaho DBs was surprisingly limited.

“I fully trust Cam. Cam has the keys to the car,” Dickert said. “He’s a big-time football player. We just gotta do some things better around him. There were a lot of busted routes we gotta clean up. I just think we can execute better and he’ll be the first one to take ownership and know that he can grow, too.”

Ball security, special teams and offensive consistency/explosiveness were glaring issues for WSU in its anxious opener. The Cougars entered the game as four-touchdown favorites, but were pushed by a lower-level opponent that seemed to be playing with more motivation.

“I feel like football is a strange game,” Ward said. “You never know what you’re going to get. I felt like we were prepared for Idaho. They’re an FCS team trying to beat a Power Five team. They had nothing to lose.”

WSU will need to tune up fast this week ahead of the program’s most anticipated nonconference game in recent history.