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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Coming off major road victory, Washington State returns home to face Colorado State, familiar coaching staff

Sept. 12, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 13, 2022 at 12:34 p.m.

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert cheers on his team against Wisconsin Saturday during the third quarter in Madison, Wis.  (Kirsten Schmitt/For The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State head coach Jake Dickert cheers on his team against Wisconsin Saturday during the third quarter in Madison, Wis. (Kirsten Schmitt/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Coming off a memorable upset victory over ranked Wisconsin on the road, Washington State (2-0) is returning home to close out its nonconference slate against Colorado State (0-2), which has been routed twice to open its first season under coach Jay Norvell.

Where is it? The Cougars will host the Rams at Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.

Where can I watch it? The Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? A rising program in the Pac-12, WSU opened as a 17-point favorite over Colorado State – a Mountain West Conference bottomfeeder for the past several years.

How did they fare last week? First-year WSU coach Jake Dickert returned to his home state and the Cougars secured one of their most significant nonconference victories in program history, outmuscling the heavily favored Badgers for a 17-14 win in front of 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.

“We believed we could do it,” Dickert said. “This wasn’t some upset of a lifetime.”

WSU got a resilient effort from its defense, which limited big plays and fared well in containing Wisconsin’s powerful ground game. The unit forced a key turnover late in the game.

“It was a physical football game, and I know our guys are feeling that today,” Dickert said Monday. “We just kept throwing things at them. You can never do just one thing against a good run team. … I’m so proud of our run defense. To not give up a huge, explosive run – which is something their offense really depends on – is important.”

The WSU offense struggled to sustain possessions against a strong Badger defense, but the Cougars found a few cracks – just enough to slip ahead as their defense held the line. First-year WSU starter Nakia Watson, a former Wisconsin running back, scored twice.

The Cougars offense saved its best drive for last, draining the final five minutes of the clock with a 10-play possession.

“That is, again, going to be one of the best defenses in the country,” Dickert said of Wisconsin. “I don’t think you can always measure success by scoring a ton of points. Yes, we want to be better. Yes, we need to be cleaner. Yes, we need to execute and not turn the ball over. … But at the same time, to run five and a half minutes off the clock the way they did, in that environment, it’s impressive.”

Asked to assess his offense’s performance, Dickert commended quarterback Cameron Ward’s poise and acknowledged that the team’s new Air Raid system is still early in the process of developing. The coach is looking for improvements in the Cougars’ downfield passing game.

“We need to continue to shape this offense to the strengths of what our guys can do,” he said. “It’ll be a continued project.”

WSU squeaked past FCS Idaho in Week 1 in a 24-17 nail-biter. In Week 2, Dickert saw better energy and fortitude from his team.

“Last week, on Tuesday after practice, I really challenged our mental toughness,” he said. “When you have a good, mature team that wants to compete, they respond to challenges.”

Colorado State stumbled out of the gates and fell into a 34-point hole in the third quarter at home against Middle Tennessee State. The Rams tried to mount a comeback, but an ugly first half was too much to overcome in a 34-19 loss.

CSU, playing with a shorthanded offensive line, surrendered nine sacks and finished the game with minus-10 net rushing yards. The Rams committed four turnovers and dropped their seventh consecutive game, dating back to last season. CSU suffered a 51-7 loss at Michigan in Week 1.

Why WSU will win: The Cougars boast an exceptional defensive front. The group has impressed in WSU’s first two games. Meanwhile, the Rams’ offensive line has had a woeful start to the season.

CSU has surrendered 16 sacks – the most in the nation (by five). The Rams lost one of their starting tackles to a season-ending injury during practice last week. Their other tackle exited the lineup early in Saturday’s game with an injury. CSU’s offensive line was already the team’s weakness before those injuries, according to local reporters.

So, expect the Cougars’ star-studded defensive line to shine and rattle redshirt freshman CSU quarterback Clay Millen.

“(The Rams) specialize in passing and I think we have to take advantage of our defensive line,” Dickert said. “We gotta find ways to be aggressive and we gotta disrupt their quarterback, who – to his credit – has stood in there and taken a lot of shots this year and kept going.”

It’s a small sample size – and one of their games was against a top-five opponent in Michigan – but the Rams seem to be in the midst of a rebuilding season under their first-year coaching staff. They haven’t done much to convince their supporters that this campaign will be better than their three-win 2021 season.

CSU lacks a ground game and its passing attack is severely hampered by protection issues. When Millen is given time to throw, his options appear to be limited – receiver Tory Horton has 255 yards and four touchdowns, and the rest of CSU’s pass-catchers have combined for 138 yards and no scores.

The Rams were drubbed at home by Middle Tennessee State, which lost 44-7 the week before against James Madison – a first-year FBS program.

Blue Raiders QB Chase Cunningham passed 31 of 39 for 266 yards against CSU last weekend. That kind of efficiency bodes well for Ward and WSU’s Air Raid passing game.

The Cougars have home-field advantage and momentum at their backs after pulling off an upset on the road against a Big Ten notable.

Why Colorado State will win: Horton could be a favorable matchup for the Rams and their pass-happy offense. It’s uncertain whether WSU’s secondary will be playing at full health this weekend.

Derrick Langford Jr., the Cougars’ top cornerback, sustained an injury in the second quarter against Wisconsin and spent the second half on the sideline in street clothes and a walking boot. Safety Jordan Lee exited the lineup with an injury late in the third quarter. Dickert didn’t have an update Monday when asked whether those two players will be available Saturday.

The Rams’ defense is solid up front. Linebackers Cam’Ron Carter and Dequan Jackson and edge rusher Mohamed Kamara are All-Mountain West candidates. Kamara leads the conference with four TFLs.

WSU played an emotional, physically demanding game last weekend. CSU is hoping to catch the Cougars off guard on the heels of their grueling victory in Madison.

What happened last time? WSU and CSU have met once before – a game Cougars fans would like to forget. WSU gave up 18 points in the final three minutes to lose 48-45 in a stunning season finale at the 2013 New Mexico Bowl. The Cougars, under second-year coach Mike Leach, were playing their first bowl game in a decade. They led by as many as 22 points but were outscored 25-10 in the second half.

Things to know:

1. WSU and CSU have a number of coaching connections. First-year Cougars defensive coordinator Brian Ward was the DC at Nevada for the past two years under head coach Jay Norvell, who was hired to lead the Rams in December after five years in Reno. At Nevada, Ward also worked alongside CSU offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, offensive line coach Bill Best and wide receivers coach Chad Savage. CSU DC Freddie Banks played at North Dakota State in the late-2000s under Ward and Dickert, both of whom were assistants in the Bison secondary. Banks shares defensive philosophies with Dickert and Ward. “It’s like playing a reflection in a mirror this week,” Dickert said of the Rams’ defense. CSU linebackers coach Adam Pilapil played LB at Wyoming during Dickert’s time as a Cowboys assistant. Having spent three seasons coaching in the Mountain West (2017-19), Dickert is familiar with Norvell’s style of offense. WSU defensive analyst Trent Greene and grad assistant Jack Ray were support staffers for Norvell at Nevada.

“You always worry, ‘Do they have our signals? Do they know our techniques? Do they know what hurts us?’ There’s a game I imagine both sides are playing right now in the meeting rooms,” Dickert said. “So, that’s an interesting dynamic.”

2. Seven players followed Norvell this offseason, transferring to CSU out of Nevada. They will face a couple of their former Wolf Pack teammates on Saturday. Standout WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley and strong safety Jordan Lee both transferred to the Pullman school out of Nevada after the 2021 season. Henley was a part of Norvell’s first recruiting class at Nevada. Lee joined the Wolf Pack a year later, in 2018. A former Cougar will be returning to Pullman this weekend. CSU safety Ayden Hector started two games for WSU in 2020. He entered the transfer portal in March 2021.

3. CSU OC Matt Mumme is the son of Hal Mumme, who pioneered the Air Raid offense and developed the system alongside former WSU coach Mike Leach in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

3. With a win, Dickert can become the ninth head coach in WSU history to start his first full season 3-0, and the first since Mike Price in 1989. A victory Saturday might be enough to earn the Cougars their first AP Top 25 ranking since early in the 2019 season. WSU received 30 votes in the Week 3 poll – No. 10 among teams in the “receiving votes” category.

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