PULLMAN – Asked to evaluate Washington State’s Air Raid system through four weeks of the season, Eric Morris offered a frank assessment filled with constructive criticism.
“We have a long ways to go,” the first-year Cougars offensive coordinator said Wednesday after practice at Rogers Field during his first meeting with media members since fall camp. “We haven’t clicked on all cylinders yet.
“Slowly but surely, we’re getting better, but not even close to where we want to be.”
The Cougars’ offense has produced uneven results and mixed reactions early this season. The team’s new version of the Air Raid – a pass-first system that emphasizes versatility in its play-calling and includes a ground game – is still developing a rhythm. Sometimes, WSU shows flashes of its potential and moves smoothly down the field. But the Cougars haven’t been as crisp as Morris would like.
“When you look at the tape, we kinda take turns making mistakes,” he said.
“The one thing that’s been frustrating about this group when you turn on the tape – a bunch of times, we’re playing with nine or 10 guys and it’s one guy making the mistake, and the whole team, the whole offense is paying for it.”
Morris identified various executional errors when his offense went up against high-level opponents, such as Wisconsin and Oregon. The “routine plays” were too often affected by “mental busts or technical busts.”
“You can see when we play better competition that our technique flaws come out,” Morris said.
“We just gotta be better at being more consistent and every guy on the field, all 11 doing their job and being able to make routine plays. Once the routine plays happen, we put drives together and we end up moving the football pretty good.”
WSU (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) leaned on its defense to open its season with wins over Idaho and Wisconsin. The Cougars’ offense erupted for four touchdowns in its first four possessions – gaining about 250 yards on its first 27 plays – then cooled off in the second half of a Week 3 rout of Colorado State. WSU’s passing game clicked for much of the day against Oregon, but the Cougars had a costly three-and-out late and committed two fourth-quarter interceptions in a 44-41 loss last weekend. Coming into the game, WSU had gone three-and-out 12 times this season.
“Last week, I thought we did a better job on the stuff we preach,” Morris said. “We didn’t go three-and-out until the worst time of the game to go three-and-out. Part of that was my fault. I called a bad play on first down and got us behind the chains. But I thought, for the most part – for the whole game – we put drives together. We were able to move the football pretty consistently. But against a good team, you can’t kick that many field goals (two in the first half).”
Morris wants to see improvements from WSU’s offensive line, a group that was shrouded in uncertainty ahead of the season. Quarterback Cameron Ward has absorbed 13 sacks – only eight teams in the nation have permitted more sacks than WSU. The Cougars’ pass-protection ranks 11th in the Pac-12, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system.
“We gotta do a better job protecting Cam,” Morris said. “He’s kinda running for his life at times.”
WSU’s ground game managed about 50 yards against both Wisconsin and Oregon. The Cougars rank last in the Pac-12 in rushing attempts (100) and yards (96.8 yards per game). Their tailbacks have broken off 11 runs of more than 10 yards. But they have also been stopped in the backfield on 11 rushing plays this season.
“We just gotta win our one-on-one blocks up front,” Morris said. “We’re just getting beat at the point of attack. That’s been the big emphasis, for us to win our one-on-one battles inside and be able to sustain blocks, and get some vertical push in the run game. We want to establish it.
“Last week, I thought it was really poor. … We kept trying because we had light boxes (Oregon’s defensive front). They kept stopping us because they were winning their one-on-one matchups.”
Protection breakdowns have forced Ward to abandon some deep passing plays.
“You gotta be able to protect to get the ball down the field,” Morris said. “We’ve had some stuff open down the field, and we can’t get to our second read because we’re getting pressure in our face.”
The Cougars have struggled to connect on long balls this season. Ward has attempted just 13 passes (out of 151 total throws) that traveled more than 20 yards through the air. Six were completed and two drew defensive pass interference calls. Otherwise, the Cougars are sticking to short and intermediate passes – screens, quick out routes and crossers.
“We would like to stretch the field a little bit better, and it not be a gimmicky play where we’re having to run a flea-flicker or a fake ‘check-with-me’ play on the sideline (as the Cougars did against Oregon),” Morris said. “Hopefully, we can stretch the field this week and in the weeks coming up.”
The emergence of slot receiver Robert Ferrel could help with that. Ferrel, a senior transfer, missed WSU’s preseason and first two games due to a foot injury but broke out against Colorado State . The team has three dependable options at the slotback position in Ferrel, veteran Renard Bell and Lincoln Victor. The Cougars will experiment with Victor at outside receiver in hopes of adding a speed element to their downfield passing game.
“(Ferrel) gives us a little bit of variety to mix some guys around,” Morris said. “We’re going to move Lincoln outside a little bit to try to maybe stretch the field and get a quicker guy on the outside, and let him and (Bell) and Rob all be on the field at the same time.”
Ward “settled down” after two up-and-down performances and performed well – exceptionally at times – over the past two weeks.
“I think the first game or two, he was pressing a little bit and trying to come out and show that he’s this superstar, and not just settling and taking what the defense gives him, and going through his reads and progression,” Morris said. “I think it’s more him settling in and, just naturally, when these kids play more and more together on Saturdays, they become more comfortable with one another.”
Ward seems to be making strides in his command of the offense while becoming relaxed at this level of play after spending the past two years at FCS Incarnate Word, where he became one of the most highly regarded transfer QBs on the market.
He has passed for 1,102 yards – 25th nationally – with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions on a 69% completion rate. Ward, showing accuracy in the quick game, dazzled for three quarters against Oregon, completing 29 of his first 33 passes.
“You can tell he’s getting really comfortable back there and also knowing where his guys are, knowing when to get the ball out,” Victor said. “He’s done a great job of being a point guard and knowing he doesn’t have to do anything special. He’s just gotta get the ball to the playmakers in space and we’ll do the work. I’ve really seen a progression from him lately, just from a leadership standpoint. … His situational awareness has really progressed over the past few weeks and allowed us to alleviate some things on offense and play a little bit smoother.”
Onlookers have been intrigued by Ward’s improvisational skills – escaping traffic in the backfield and generating entertaining plays.
Cougar coaches and teammates have dubbed Ward “Houdini” for his creativity and maneuverability.
“You gotta be ready for those types of plays,” Victor said. “Scramble drill is a huge part of our offense. That’s where you see those big, explosive plays. … Knowing when he’s going to scramble and where he likes to set up and throw, and where his eyes are gonna be – that’s all trust level.”
Ward produced two highlights that went viral on social media last weekend, picking up first downs on off-script plays during a fourth-quarter scoring drive against Oregon. He hit running back Nakia Watson with a falling shovel pass. Later in the series, he danced around in the backfield on fourth down, spun out of a sack and found Watson for a big gain.
“The last couple of weeks, he’s made some great plays on third and fourth downs, where he’s gotten out of the pocket and had a little magic to him out there, flipping the ball to Nakia in some weird spots,” Morris said. “That’s part of his game. It always will be, but he’s gotta do a better job of protecting the ball consistently.”
Oregon clinched the game with an interception return for touchdown against Ward. The Cougars have committed eight total giveaways this season against seven takeaways.
“He’s been good, but the one thing we’re harping on is the turnovers,” Morris said. “I think this is four straight weeks where we haven’t been able to win the turnover battle. The last three weeks, it’s been the quarterback position that’s making those turnovers.”
The Cougars have been sharp when they use tempo to their advantage, catching opponents napping with a hurry-up attack that features a mix of quick-hitting passes and run-pass options.
According to data compiled by 247Sports’ Chris Hummer, the Cougars have the 31st fastest-moving offense in the nation (plays per minute). Seven of WSU’s scoring possessions over the past two games lasted three or fewer minutes each.
“We like to play with tempo … but people know we like to play with tempo, so whenever we go and change our personnel grouping, they make it a point to go really slow to sub their guys,” Morris said. “When we go fast, we’ve been able to throw some unique formations at people, which is hard for them to defend. But once we do, they try to take advantage of it the other way and slow us down.”
WSU’s offense has been underwhelming. The Cougars are eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (30 ppg) and 10th in total offense (372.3 yards per game). Ward’s 275.5 passing yards per game rank seventh among conference QBs. WSU has converted just 38% of its third-down tries (ninth) in the Pac-12 but is tied atop the conference in red-zone conversion rate (94%).
Five receivers have logged 10-plus catches apiece, led by outside receivers Donovan Ollie (24 receptions, 236 yards, two TDs) and De’Zhaun Stribling (19 receptions, 220 yards, four TDs).
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