PULLMAN – A game-sealing interception dampened the mood, but the overall performance of quarterback Cameron Ward and Washington State’s passing game should provide encouragement for the Cougars’ fan base.
“The Coug Raid was great today,” coach Jake Dickert said of his team’s offense after WSU suffered a stunning, 44-41 home loss to No. 15 Oregon on Saturday. “I thought those guys did a good job of finding ways to keep the chains moving and making some big plays in space.
“Offensively, there should be a lot of confidence coming out of this game.”
The Cougars’ ground game left much to be desired, but their aerial attack had its best day of the season behind an impressive effort from Ward. The young QB completed 29 of his first 33 passes before an early fourth-quarter interception – a Ducks corner ripped the ball away from receiver Leyton Smithson as the two wrestled on the ground.
Ward completed 11 consecutive passes during one second-half stretch, and connected on nine straight earlier in the game. He was in a groove for much of the day, working safely and efficiently in an up-tempo system while spraying passes to nine receivers. Ward’s improvisational skills stood out.
“He’s just a magician out there, especially outside the pocket,” slot receiver Robert Ferrel said. “Off script, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.”
During one late possession, Ward produced two highlights that went viral on college football Twitter.
On a first-and-10 from his own 32-yard line, Ward was flushed out of the pocket to his left and had his right leg swiped by a falling Oregon defender as he looked for running room. Ward stumbled and began to fall, but just before his chest hit the ground, he pushed a shovel pass high into the air. The ball traveled about 8 yards downfield and landed precisely in the arms of running back Nakia Watson, who picked up 25 yards.
“Just maneuvering my way through the pocket, find the check-down,” Ward said.
Multiple national media outlets and college football experts shared a clip of the play.
“This is a play you see on Sundays by the best in the business,” Fox announcer Tim Brando said of Ward, the sixth-ranked QB on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s 2023 NFL draft board.
Four plays later, on a fourth-and-7 from Oregon’s 40-yard line, Ward navigated traffic and rolled about 15 yards to the right. He scanned the field and found nothing, then spun out of a sack, turned back to his left and zipped a check-down pass to Watson, who was wide open and raced 12 yards. The Cougars finished that drive with a sweep-toss TD to Ferrel on the goal line.
“He has magic in his hands,” Dickert said of Ward. “That fourth-down play was unbelievable. He was gritty, he was tough and he got hit. I give a lot of credit to the whole offense. I thought they were sharp today. They played tough. We gotta be able to run the ball a little bit better to have a balance. Every time we ran it, we got a little bit behind the chains, but we kept scratching and clawing, and I think you saw that to the end.”
WSU’s offense showed creativity in its playcalling and moved the ball with a respectable level of consistency after some up-and-down play to start this season, but the Air Raid lost its flair in crunch time Saturday.
Protecting a five-point lead with under four minutes to play, the Cougars went three-and-out and drained one minute off the clock. Ward made a critical mistake with one minute remaining after Oregon had stormed back to take its first lead, 37-34. On the second play of WSU’s last-ditch possession, Ducks edge rusher Mase Funa didn’t bite on a screen play and Ward threw it right to him. Funa collected the pick and went 27 yards the other way for the dagger.
Ward finished 37 of 48 for 375 yards and three touchdowns – one of them a rushing score – against two interceptions. He absorbed four sacks. The sophomore transfer ranks 25th in the nation with 1,101 passing yards and is tied for 18th with 10 TDs.
WSU’s ground game was limited to just 1.7 yards per carry by an Oregon defensive front that boasts a handful of pro prospects. The Cougars’ offensive line seemed outmatched at times, but Dickert was mostly pleased with the group’s showing.
“I think the O-line did a good job. I really did,” he said. “There were times (Ward) couldn’t get through all of his progressions, but we kept him upright for the most part.”
Watson made for a reliable receiving target, matching a team-high with eight receptions and tallying 68 yards. The Cougars got 80-plus yards apiece from slot Renard Bell and outside receivers Donovan Ollie and De’Zhaun Stribling. Ferrel scored his first touchdown as a Coug in his second WSU game, finishing with 50 yards on eight catches. Ferrel, who followed offensive coordinator Eric Morris and Ward to Pullman out of FCS Incarnate Word, missed the preseason and the Cougars’ first two games with an injury but has emerged quickly as a dependable receiver in the short-passing game.
“I feel like we have a good scheme and the right playmakers around me,” Ward said. “All of the pieces are there. I feel like this was a decent day for the offense and something to build on coming into next week.”
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