PULLMAN – Last weekend, Washington State had an impressive performance on a bright stage and raised the expectations surrounding its program.
The Cougars went to Madison, Wisconsin, and toughed out an upset victory over a ranked Badgers team in a challenging environment.
The win inspired WSU supporters and put the Cougars on the radar. They received 30 votes in the latest AP Top 25 poll.
“It confirms everything we thought we were going into the game,” Cougars tight end Billy Riviere said of the 17-14 triumph. “We can play with anybody in the country when we play our best.”
The Cougars stoked their ambitions and boosted confidence in their potential. Now, the question becomes: Can they sustain their upward trajectory?
WSU (2-0) seeks to build on its momentum and sweep its nonconference schedule at 2 p.m. Saturday, when the Cougars play host to underdog Colorado State at Gesa Field.
“Really good teams know how to deal with success,” WSU slot receiver Lincoln Victor said Tuesday. “We attacked this week knowing we can’t ride this high for too long.
“Knowing that we did go into Big Ten country and come out with a grinder of a win … it just shows what type of team we are and what type of team we can be. The mindset now is: We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
The Cougars are 17-point favorites coming off their grueling victory in Wisconsin.
WSU eked out a one-score win over FCS Idaho in the opener, but the Cougars didn’t waste an opportunity to prove themselves in Week 2, posting a signature win for the program in just the second game of the Jake Dickert era.
“We’re more excited to see how much better we can get after that type of a win,” WSU center Konner Gomness said.
CSU hasn’t proven much through two games under new coach Jay Norvell. The Rams were routed at No. 4 Michigan to open their season and fell behind by a big margin early in a home loss last weekend to Middle Tennessee State.
Pass protection has been the most glaring issue for the Rams and their pass-first Air Raid offense.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Clay Millen has absorbed 16 sacks – no team in the country has allowed more sacks than CSU this year. Starting left tackle Brian Crespo-Jaquez sustained a season-ending knee injury during practice last week. Starting right tackle Dontae Keys suffered a shoulder injury during the MTSU game and is questionable to play against the Cougars.
The Blue Raiders sacked Millen nine times. CSU tried to rally out of a five-touchdown hole in the second half but lost 34-19.
“We’re sick about (Millen) getting hit,” Norvell said. “It’s really just a tough situation for him to be in, but I love the way he competed.”
Shaky offensive line play would spell disaster for CSU this weekend.
WSU’s defensive front appears to be one of the Pac-12’s best. The group matched up well against the Badgers’ formidable running game and pro-caliber Big Ten offensive linemen. Star Cougars edge rushers Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. could be competing against Mountain West backups on Saturday.
“It definitely gives us some confidence, knowing we can hang with the big dogs,” Jackson said.
Dickert has been emphasizing the pass rush this week. WSU totaled six sacks in Week 1 and one against Wisconsin, a traditionally run-heavy team.
“We need to do a better job of disrupting the passer,” Dickert said.
“(The Rams) will get the ball out fast at times, but they’ll also sit back and try to take shots down the field. We gotta find ways to be aggressive and disrupt their quarterback, who – to his credit – has stood in there and taken a lot of shots this year and kept going.”
The Cougars’ defensive front shouldn’t give much ground against CSU, which is averaging 1 yard per carry. The Rams leaned on the deep ball last weekend and will be searching for soft spots in a WSU secondary that might be playing limited – No. 1 cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. and standout strong safety Jordan Lee are questionable due to injuries sustained at Wisconsin. CSU’s offense is led by a superstar receiver in Tory Horton, who could be a favorable matchup for the Rams.
“It’s really important that we shut down the run early on, get them into passing downs and attack with our best moves,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get the offensive line rattled early, then hit the quarterback a couple of times and make him throw some errant throws, and get some turnovers.”
The Cougars are looking for their Air Raid to string together possessions and take some pressure off the defense, which has carried the team this season as the new offense settles in.
“We’d like to be out there a little more and give our defense a bigger rest,” Gomness said.
WSU’s offense has flashed signs of progress, but has yet to pull together a complete effort. Perhaps this will be the breakout game for quarterback Cameron Ward while facing an underwhelming CSU secondary.
CSU will hope to catch WSU napping and turn the game into a letdown for the home crowd. The Cougars plan to build on their reputation and keep the spirits climbing in Pullman.
“There is a standard of preparation, a standard of how we game plan and a standard of how we go throughout the week – that’s the message,” Dickert said. “I don’t believe in ‘trap’ games. I believe in preparing the right way to go out there and do what we need to do to be 1-0 each week, period.”