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Washington State notebook: As Air Raid system finds rhythm, Cougar offense leaning on ‘effort’

Washington State receiver Lincoln Victor (5) runs after a catch while Wisconsin cornerback Max Lofy (12) and Badgers linebacker Maema Njongmeta (55) defend Saturday during the first quarter of a nonconference game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Kirsten Schmitt/For the Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State’s Air Raid hasn’t operated with much consistency early this season. The Cougars are still searching for rhythm as they sharpen up the technical details and communication in their freshly installed system.

It’ll take time and experience for a new offense to settle into form. Until then, WSU’s players are leaning on the intangibles, maintaining consistent energy to offset the growing pains that come with the Air Raid’s development process.

“The crazy thing about it is we’re 2-0, winning off of straight effort,” WSU receiver Lincoln Victor said Tuesday when asked to assess the Cougars’ offense through two weeks. “Once the execution piece comes in, it’s going to be really scary.

“We’re literally winning games – and big games – with just effort, and not even technique or execution. Once those phases of the game come, it’s going to be a sight to see.”

That effort was particularly evident Saturday on a key play, a late-game “hustle play” that turned the tide in the Cougars’ favor and allowed them to pull off a 17-14 road win over Wisconsin.

Trailing by four midway through the third quarter, WSU advanced the ball to midfield before the Badgers forced back-to-back incompletions, setting up a third-and-10.

Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward was hammered in the backfield as he threw a pass intended for Victor down the near sideline. Wisconsin cornerback Jay Shaw stepped in front of the off-target toss and intercepted it. Victor was shoved out of bounds, but he didn’t give up on the play.

“The guy who was covering me ended up falling down,” Victor said. “All I was thinking was, ‘Shoot, I hope (Shaw) comes to the sideline, because I’m going to get back in this play and go for the ball.’ ”

WSU receiver De’Zhaun Stribling wrapped up Shaw’s legs, and Victor came flying in.

“I saw the ball flapping around,” he said. “It was just no fear, give it everything I got. I didn’t really strip the ball out with my hand. I really just put my whole shoulder into it, my whole right side, made sure my head was out of contact and put every ounce of my body into that hit.”

Victor laid out for a blind-side blow on Shaw, jarring the ball free. Three Wisconsin players were nearby and appeared well-positioned to pounce on it, but WSU center Konner Gomness rumbled upfield and launched in between the Badgers.

“Great hustle,” Victor said of Gomness, who secured the fumble and gave the Cougars a fresh set of downs.

“When a moment like that happens, you can’t flinch,” Gomness said of the play on Tuesday after practice at Rogers Field. “You just gotta think about the team and put ourselves in the best position. So, me getting on that ball would have helped, and I was gonna do that by any means.

“I had tunnel vision. I only saw that ball.”

Six plays later, WSU scored the go-ahead touchdown – which proved to be the winner – when Ward connected with running back Nakia Watson on a check-down pass that went for 31 yards .

“It was good to see the effort come full circle,” Victor said.

The persistence Victor and Gomness showed on that drive-saving play – perhaps the game-saving play – epitomized WSU’s identity, according to coach Jake Dickert, whose program is built on the pillars of effort and energy. The Cougars haven’t been exceptional on offense, but they have responded well to adverse situations – rebounding after slow starts and pushing through sloppy stretches of play.

WSU’s defense denied Wisconsin late in the game with another hustle play. Edge rusher Quinn Roff tracked down Badgers tight end Clay Cundiff about 10 yards up the field in the red zone and lunged from behind to knock the ball free. Cougars safety Sam Lockett III collected the fumble with about 5 minutes to play, and WSU’s offense milked the rest of the clock.

“I think everyone that watched that game could see so much grit and determination that we play with,” edge rusher Brennan Jackson added. “That’s gotta scare any team looking at film.

“The biggest thing is the effort. I go back to that play, Quinn at the end of the game, just hustling down and punching at the ball. … That was one thing I was really excited about – everybody was playing with so much effort out there in a hostile environment.”

WSU offense looks for breakout game

The Cougars’ offense slumped for two extended stretches during a season-opening win over FCS Idaho. WSU’s Air Raid showed just a few flashes of its potential in the debut – the ground game and quick-passing attack were productive enough for the Cougars to erase an early 10-point deficit and control a second-half lead while the team’s defense dominated .

The Cougars’ offense had trouble sustaining possessions against the Badgers. WSU found a few cracks in a strong defense – just enough to slip ahead as the Cougars’ resilient defense kept the Badgers off the scoreboard in the second half.

On 23 possessions this season, WSU’s offense has compiled seven scoring drives and three more series that were productive, but didn’t yield points. The Cougars have gone three-and-out seven times.

“It’s definitely important to put that confidence in our offense, as well as Cam,” Victor said. “For the defense, too – those guys have been battling their tails off. We want to be able to give them a breather or two, and be able to have them relax and know, ‘We’re working for you guys, too.’ ”

WSU hopes to boost its offensive production this weekend against Colorado State (0-2). The Cougars host the Rams at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Ward kept his composure in a difficult atmosphere last weekend and exhibited poise, especially in the second half. He spread out the touches and made mostly safe decisions against one of the nation’s notable defensive units. Through his first two WSU games, Ward has completed 62% of his passes for 428 yards and four TDs against two picks.

“Cam is the ultimate competitor,” Dickert said Monday. “I love that he’s not satisfied. I saw a great growth in his leadership (on Saturday), I saw a great growth in his body language. He didn’t make all the sexy plays, but there were some times that he got us out of negative plays … scrambling around and navigating the pocket and even throwing things away is a sign of growth.

“There are things around him that we need to continue to get better at, and Cam needs to continue to keep his eyes down the field as we keep working.”

The Cougars’ longest passing play this season is a 43-yarder to slotback Renard Bell, but that came on a bubble screen. The longest pass Ward has thrown downfield is a well-placed shot down the sideline to tight end Billy Riviere that went for 38 yards, setting up a TD run in the second quarter against Wisconsin.

“When we had that four-play drive (sparked by Riviere’s catch), that’s how our offense wants to be all the time,” Gomness said.

The Cougars have mostly settled for short and intermediate passes.

“Our guys are working and our staff is working to make sure we’re still having the ability to stretch the ball down the field,” Dickert said. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing we’ve gotta be able to show capabilities of doing.”

Each of WSU’s four starting receivers has accumulated more than 60 yards. Each of Ward’s TD passes has gone to a different target. Outside receiver Donovan Ollie leads the group with 101 yards on 12 catches. Victor said he’s proud of the receiving corps for its “selflessness.”

“The receivers played a lot better in this football game,” Dickert said. “They played hard and tough and were physical down the field.”

WSU’s new-look offensive line was shrouded with uncertainty this offseason, but the group has had a respectable start to the season and performed admirably against the Badgers’ stout defensive front. WSU’s O-line allowed two sacks. The big men shined during a 10-play, 43-yard series that drained the final 5:14 off the clock.

“I think the offensive line has done a solid job, but there are some times where we need to firm up the pocket,” Dickert said.

Watson and Jaylen Jenkins are the Cougars’ only two tailbacks with carries this year. The O-line opened wide lanes against Idaho and Watson posted a 100-yard day. The holes were far less frequent on Saturday. Watson and Jenkins totaled 61 yards on 16 attempts as WSU opted to get the ball out of the backfield quickly with its up-tempo passing game.

“We’re starting to glue better and better each week,” Gomness said. “We kinda have this little misfit offensive line and I think it’s awesome. We’re growing together and I just love this group and love playing with them.”