PULLMAN – Washington State tuned up for Pac-12 play, stomping Colorado State to complete a sweep of its nonconference slate.
WSU’s conference schedule opens next weekend at home with a big-time matchup against No. 15 Oregon.
The Cougars have plenty to work on if they hope to contend in the Pac-12, but their start to the season bodes well.
Enthusiasm surrounds WSU’s program, which opened the Jake Dickert era with three consecutive victories. Dickert is the first Cougars coach to begin his first campaign 3-0 since Mike Price in 1989.
WSU received 62 votes in the Associated Press Top 25 released Sunday. The Cougars are five spots out of the rankings coming off their 38-7 rout of the Rams at Gesa Field.
“I’m just very happy with where we’re at through three games,” Dickert said Saturday after the win. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of people besides that locker room that thought we would be here right now. That’s a fun place to be, but it’s not the end of the journey. We’re excited for conference play next week.”
Oregon jumped from No. 24 in the AP poll after dismantling then-No. 12 BYU 41-20.
Offense makes strides, but defense spearheads win
The Cougars’ Air Raid clicked early on Saturday, scoring on four consecutive possessions to open the game. In the second half, with the score lopsided, WSU’s offense lost its rhythm.
But the Cougars’ defense stayed in a groove all day. Half of CSU’s possessions produced 5 or fewer yards. The Rams managed just two successful drives – both in the second half, trailing by four touchdowns. They were limited to 82 yards in the first half and held scoreless until early in the fourth quarter as WSU’s defense continued its stellar start to the season.
“Our defense has been great,” Dickert said. “Now, (the goal is) to maintain it. Our defense is hungry. They want more. They’re humble and they don’t care who gets credit. They’re celebrating together. Those are powerful things. It isn’t just talent. We’ll be tested as we go through the Pac-12 schedule.
“I’m just happy with those guys not being satisfied, not listening to all the hype and just going out there and working.”
WSU’s defensive front put forth exceptional effort and was consistently disruptive for the third straight week . High expectations surrounded the group coming into this season. So far, the unit is living up to its billing. The Cougars’ front dominated FCS Idaho, fared well in containing Wisconsin’s ground-and-pound offense, then thoroughly outclassed CSU.
The Cougars recorded 21 sacks last season. They are already up to 14 this year – tied with USC for second in the nation and first in the Pac-12. WSU leads the conference and ranks second nationally with 31 tackles for loss. Eight players have registered multiple TFLs. Star linebacker Daiyan Henley has a team-high 7½ TFLs.
“We’re coming off the ball fast, and we got guys in the back that can cover,” Henley said.
WSU collected two takeaways on Saturday, boosting its total this year to seven – tied for 18th in the FBS.
The Cougars took advantage of the Rams’ shorthanded offensive line and tallied seven sacks Saturday – the highest single-game sack total for WSU in five years and tied for the seventh-most in one game in Cougar program history.
Dickert thought WSU’s defense could have come up with more sacks versus CSU. Edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. “was a step away from probably four of them,” Dickert noted. Stone was a steady presence in the backfield, but he didn’t record a sack. Five of his teammates got to the quarterback. Henley screamed through gaps on blitzes and led the way with three sacks – the most for a WSU player in one game since Hercules Mata’afa tallied three against Utah in 2017.
“It’s good to get in those types of situations, because we have to be able to rush the passer in the Pac-12,” Dickert said. “We’re going to see some explosive offenses.”
CSU had 4 yards rushing at halftime and finished the game with 37 ground yards on 31 attempts. The Rams were playing without starting tailback A’Jon Vivens.
“They didn’t have the guy that provides speed, so we could disrupt the play, attack the line because they were not getting to the edges,” Henley said.
The Cougars’ new offense looked disjointed for extended spells in its first two games and exhibited only the occasional glimpse of its explosive potential. The Air Raid came out firing against CSU, gaining 253 of its 440 total yards on its first four drives – which spanned 27 plays and less than 10 minutes – to open a 28-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
WSU began the second half with a similarly quick and efficient series, which ended in a short field goal, before a sluggish four-possession stretch that included two punts, a turnover on downs and an errant interception by Ward.
The Cougars netted 48 yards on 14 plays from the 9:44 mark of the third quarter to 9:53 in the fourth period. They slowed their pace and seemed to play with less enthusiasm – not a surprise when a team is up by 31 points.
Dickert was disappointed in his offense’s inability to sustain its success in the second half. He thought the offensive line surrendered too much pressure. Ward absorbed two sacks and was occasionally rushed out of the pocket. WSU’s ground game was ineffective for much of the second half.
“We weren’t as good as we need to be up front to win big games,” Dickert said. “As we get into Pac-12 play, that’s something we gotta make sure we firm up.
“It’s about half-full and half-empty,” he added, giving his assessment of the offense’s day. “It (showed) what we’re capable of doing. We can be explosive, we can take the ball down the field. We just gotta make sure we’re doing it all together for a full 60 minutes.”
WSU’s defense is starring, and that’ll take pressure off a developing offense. Ward is still finding his footing at the Power Five level, but he managed his first two games well enough and shredded CSU’s secondary in the first half of Game 3. He is the fourth Cougars QB of all time to win his first three starts, joining Anthony Gordon (2019), Steve Birnbaum (1998) and Chad Davis (1994).
“We’ve practiced hard on really coming together, jelling together,” receiver Donovan Ollie said. “We had the first two weeks to really see where everybody’s going to be at, where Cam is going to put the ball. Now, our chemistry has grown.”
Reserves make plays
Safety Jaden Hicks impressed in his first career start and receiver Robert Ferrel introduced himself to Cougars fans with a couple of nifty plays in his WSU debut.
Hicks, a second-year freshman, got the start at strong safety in relief of senior standout Jordan Lee, who missed the game due to an injury sustained last weekend against Wisconsin.
“I’ve been working for this my whole life, so every shot I can get, I’m going to take the opportunity and run with it,” Hicks said after the game. “(Lee) was talking me up the whole week, saying I can do it. … He really helped me out and boosted my confidence.”
Hicks finished second on the team with 10 tackles. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Las Vegas recorded one stop in the backfield, broke up a deep pass with a hard hit and tallied the first interception of his collegiate career.
On a fourth-and-5 play from the Cougars’ 37-yard line midway through the third quarter, Rams quarterback Clay Millen took a shot toward the end zone. Hicks, who was stationed about 10 yards away from the intended target when the ball left Millen’s hand, raced across the field and cut off the pass with a diving attempt, coming away with a turnover at WSU’s 3-yard line.
Hicks worked at strong safety early this preseason but shifted to free safety in mid-August. He played over 100 snaps as a backup free safety across WSU’s first two games this season. Considering his experience, the Cougars thought Hicks would be the best option to replace Lee – instead of backup strong safety Adrian Shepherd, who had only appeared on special teams before Saturday’s game.
“We know he’s ready,” Dickert said of Hicks. “He hadn’t played strong safety since the first week of fall camp. To do that on one week is a special performance. That’s the expectation we have for him. That’s what he’s capable of doing and he showed it. He played with extreme confidence. He wasn’t perfect. There’s a couple of things he can learn from, but I’m just excited about the upside of Jaden Hicks.”
Ferrel showed off big-play potential early in the first quarter of his breakout game as a Cougar. The senior slotback sustained a foot injury this offseason and missed all of the preseason and WSU’s first two games. He was limited to about 15 snaps on Saturday, but he only needed two plays to signal promise.
Ferrel sparked the Cougar offense on its second drive of the day, collecting a short reception on a crossing route and taking it 26 yards. He produced the longest catch of the day for the Cougars midway through the third quarter on another reception over the middle. Ferrel weaved downfield for 38 yards.
“He’s gonna have an opportunity to really give us another speed body inside that we can go with,” Dickert said. “I’m excited to get Robby back as a returner. That’s what he specializes in.”
Ferrel transferred to WSU this summer after spending the past two seasons at FCS Incarnate Word in San Antonio. He followed quarterback Cameron Ward and coach Eric Morris – now the Cougars’ offensive coordinator – to Pullman and was expected to be a key pass-catcher for WSU off the bench this year. Ferrel caught more than 100 passes from Ward and amassed 1,289 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns over the past two years at UIW. He earned All-Southland Conference honors as both a kick returner and receiver.
“I know those guys have a lot of chemistry on and off the field,” Dickert said. “Robby can be a big playmaker for us.”
Ferrel will presumably take the place of slot Drake Owen, who had a solid camp to work his way up the depth chart and into a backup role but sustained a foot injury on Saturday and missed Saturday’s game. Starting slot receiver Renard Bell suffered an unspecified injury during the CSU game and was sidelined for the second half.
Outside receiver Leyton Smithson, a well-regarded true freshman from Bellingham, logged the first reception of his career, a 4-yard sideline catch for a first down in the second quarter. He totaled 6 yards on two catches.
Several Cougars made their collegiate debuts in the fourth quarter as WSU looked to drain the clock in a game that had long been decided. Running back Kannon Katzer, a redshirt freshman from Spokane, stood out among the newcomers, rushing for 54 yards and a short TD on six carries during the Cougars’ final drive.
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