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Sports >  WSU football

Jacob Thorpe: Washington State enters Pac-12 play with a NFL-caliber linebacker, more to prove on offense

Sept. 18, 2022 Updated Sun., Sept. 18, 2022 at 8:21 p.m.

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

Well, dear readers, the editors are at my throat. “Have an opinion,” they insist. “Stir up some controversy,” they wail.

The Rolex-adorned suits at Sports Section HQ demand I extrapolate meaning from the Washington State University’s predictable pasting of the Colorado State Cosplayers during their college football re-enactment, er, game on Saturday.

But this is my column. I get to write in the first person and everything, see? It is you I serve, and no other masters. And I refuse to insult your intelligence by telling you that the Cougars’ offense has hit its stride, or spend any more of the world’s dwindling ink supplies on that 38-7 drubbing. Frankly, I’m a little worried writing any more about Colorado State’s football season could constitute a HIPAA violation.

While the season is still young, we have seen enough of the Cougars to form some first impressions. With the usual caveats about a small sample size and the Pac-12 teams not playing many of the same opponents in their nonconference schedule, here are some things I think about WSU.

• Daiyan Henley is the best back-seven defensive player WSU has had since Deone Bucannon. I use the qualifier “back seven” purely out of respect for the college career of one Hercules Mata’afa.

The first drive on Saturday ended with a sack that reminded me of a more famous pass rush in recent WSU history: Jahad Woods’ strip sack of Sam Darnold to seal WSU’s 2017 victory over USC.

In both cases the linebacker stuck his toe in the ground and was on the quarterback before the offensive player could process the blitz. Woods was a terror for the half-decade he started at WSU because of that trademark speed that turned his dreadlocks into a blur as he flew around the field, erasing big plays by covering more turf than the typical boundaries of his position.

Through three games we have seen that the Nevada transfer is a similar player – with two key differences: height and weight. A quarter of the way through the season, Henley leads the Pac-12 with four sacks and is tied for fourth with 10 tackles per game.

It was notable in fall camp that the Cougars had a new linebacker with an NFL build, and now he is making the type of impact on the field one expects from a future professional. I’m not the person to tell you whether or not Henley also has NFL riches in his future, but I am comfortable saying the Cougars haven’t had such an impactful defender off the line of scrimmage since Bucannon was selected in the NFL draft’s first round back in 2014.

• Cam Ward still has not settled in but shows a lot of poise while he gets comfortable at this level. The Cougars much-ballyhooed transfer quarterback has shown creativity and adaptability in the pass pocket, a live arm and the quick release that have had WSU fans so excited since his arrival on the Palouse. But I will admit that I thought he would be a little better at the basics by this point in the season.

Too many throws to wide -open receivers are off by just a few feet, leading either to incomplete passes or receivers being unable to make anything else out of the reception as the defense closes while they adjust to the errant pass. Ward still seems to think opposing defenses have the FCS speed that he is used to, and there were some cross-body throws right to the defense on Saturday that a Pac-12 team will turn into points every time.

But what I like about Ward is that instead of panicking and trying to play hero ball, he has turned into something of a game manager while he grows more comfortable in the season and with this team. In his major test on the road against then-ranked Wisconsin, Ward got better as the game went along. He did not win the game for the Cougars, but he did not lose it for them, either. Heading into this season I expected Ward to be the de facto star player for WSU, and he still can be. But with Pac-12 play starting this weekend against a fast and physical Oregon defense, I am glad to see that Ward can win games when he isn’t putting up video game numbers.

• WSU is proving it has a big-time fan base. The sword of Damocles hanging over the 2023 season is the potential demise of the Pac-12 in the coming years. UCLA and USC are leaving, Oregon and Washington seem eager to join them. What happens to the rest of the schools is anyone’s guess, but none of the options seem great.

I have heard many WSU fans posit since the win over Wisconsin that the upset must strengthen WSU’s case for inclusion in one of the major conference’s going forward. I’m sorry to spoil the fun, but it really doesn’t matter. The Cougars could go undefeated this year, and the conference executives and their media counterparts would not consider it a reason to include WSU in any future plans. But it is not all bad news. What WSU has done this season is prove that it has a dedicated fan base that will watch the games, which is really the only consideration in these conference realignment discussions. The Wisconsin game was the No. 4 most-watched college football game that weekend. That is not because of the upset, and of course the opposing fans play a large role. But the Cougars have long proved that they can attract the eyeballs that pay the bills. Per Stewart Mandel of The Athletic, since 2015 the Cougars regularly draw more viewers than other Power Conference programs such as Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and half their Pac-12 counterparts. Keep watching the games on Saturdays, Cougars fans, and there is no reason to think WSU will be left out in the cold.

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