Story of the game …
Washington State could use a smooth win after two nail-biting victories to start its season. The Cougars are looking to avoid a trap game and tune up their offense when they close their nonconference schedule hosting a rebuilding Colorado State team at 2 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.
The Cougars (2-0) upset Wisconsin on the road last weekend and have a home game against Oregon looming next week.
They’re not overlooking an unusually familiar Rams squad.
Observers will notice that WSU and CSU field similar schemes. The programs share several coaching connections. They both run the Air Raid offense and their defensive strategies stem from the same coaching tree. The most notable coincidence: First-year WSU defensive coordinator Brian Ward served in the same role over the past two seasons at Nevada under coach Jay Norvell – the first-year head coach at CSU.
The formations and principles are comparable, but there is a talent gap between the Cougars and the Rams (0-2).
When Washington State has the ball …
Cougars slot receiver Lincoln Victor made a prediction earlier this week.
“I really do believe this is the game where things are going to click,” he said of WSU’s offense.
Through two weeks, the Cougar Air Raid has shown flashes of its potential during sparse stretches of consistency. The WSU offense appeared to have some opening-day jitters in a Week 1 win over Idaho. The Cougars couldn’t sustain many possessions in Week 2, but they managed a few big plays and saved their longest drive for last to milk the clock and squeeze past Wisconsin.
WSU’s offense seems due for a breakout performance.
“When we really get clicking here, I think it’s going to be a sight to see,” tight end Billy Riviere said.
The Cougars’ passing game relied mostly on quick passes and screen plays over the past two weeks. Coach Jake Dickert has been emphasizing the deep ball this week. He wants to see an uptick in downfield attempts. Just three completions have gone for more than 20 yards this year. One was a dump-off pass to running back Nakia Watson, who raced into open field for a 31-yard touchdown versus Wisconsin. Another big gain came on a bubble screen to slotback Renard Bell, who cut upfield for 43 yards. Quarterback Cameron Ward connected on his first true long ball of the year versus the Badgers, firing a 38-yarder to Riviere.
“You gotta take those shots,” Dickert said. “You gotta loosen up the defense. That’s our plan every week, we just haven’t gotten too much of it.
“It’s gotta be a part of who we are and we gotta make sure we’re going out and doing it. We’re going to get after it this week and find ways to do it.”
Ward should find holes in CSU’s secondary, which allowed Middle Tennessee State quarterback Chase Cunningham to complete 31 of 38 passes for 266 yards last week. The Blue Raiders totaled four passing plays of over 25 yards.
The Rams’ defense will send disguised blitzes on third downs. CSU’s defensive front includes several All-Mountain West candidates. The Cougars rushed for over 100 yards in Week 1, but their ground game was held in check last weekend by a gap-plugging Badgers defense.
“We just need to be firmer on the inside,” Dickert said of his offensive line. “We’re going to get a lot of different blitz packages this week. They do a lot of the same things we do on third downs. We (misidentified) a couple of things last week. I think we can move some people in the run game. … Sometimes we’re doing it, sometimes we’re not. There are some positive steps, but there’s a lot of room for growth.”
When Colorado State has the ball …
The Rams also operate an Air Raid system, led by offensive-minded coach Norvell and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Mumme – whose father, Hal, pioneered the offense.
CSU’s offense is paced by one of the most productive receivers in the nation: Tory Horton, who has accumulated 255 yards and four touchdowns in just two weeks.
“(Horton) can play anywhere in the country,” Dickert said of the Nevada transfer, who followed Norvell from Nevada to Fort Collins.
But the options are limited in CSU’s pass-happy attack. Besides Horton, no receivers have emerged as reliable targets. Five others have combined for 138 yards on 21 receptions with no TDs between them.
“We need to get more of our playmakers involved,” Norvell said. “We should have five, six, seven, eight receivers catching the ball. We don’t want to rely on just one guy.”
Norvell’s Air Raid is more pass-reliant than the system employed at WSU. Rams quarterback Clay Millen, son of 1980s Washington Huskies QB Hugh Millen, often looks to air it out deep down the field – that is, when he has time. CSU’s offense is severely hampered by a shorthanded offensive line, which has allowed an FBS-worst 16 sacks. One starting tackle suffered a season-ending injury last week during practice. The other sustained an injury against MTSU last weekend and is questionable to play against WSU, which boasts depth and a couple of Pac-12 stars on its defensive line.
WSU ranks second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (seven). The Cougars are stocked with six capable players at the edge and defensive tackle positions.
“These guys specialize in passing and we have to take advantage of our defensive line,” Dickert said.
The Rams’ ground game has been nearly nonexistent early this season. CSU is averaging 1 yard per carry on 73 attempts.
WSU’s secondary might be playing without two important pieces on Saturday. Derrick Langford Jr., the team’s top cornerback, and starting strong safety Jordan Lee both went down with injuries against Wisconsin and will be “game-time decisions” for the Cougars’ Week 3 matchup, according to Dickert.
If Langford and Lee aren’t available, rattling Millen with pressure will be key for WSU’s defense.
Norvell impressed with WSU’s win
The CSU coach was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. His father and brother played for the Badgers. Norvell spent six years as an offensive assistant at Wisconsin (1989-94). He knows well how challenging it is for a team to march into Camp Randall Stadium and outmuscle the Badgers.
“You don’t go in there and beat them unless you’re physical,” he said. “(The Cougars) did a really good job playing their heavy sets and stopping the run game. Wisconsin has a really good back. It was an impressive performance, especially defensively.”
WSU contained running back Braelon Allen and blanked Wisconsin in the second half. After the victory, the Cougars received 30 votes in the AP Top 25 poll. They are the No. 10 team in the “receiving votes” category. A win on Saturday might be enough to propel them into the rankings for the first time since early in the 2019 season.
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