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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In rematch with Colorado State, WSU’s defense gets a tall order — and a revamped offense

Washington State Cougars defensive end Raam Stevenson (45) crashes into Colorado State Rams wide receiver Ty McCullouch (6) as he is brought down by Cougars defensive back Armani Marsh (8) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 38-7.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Check out highlights of last year’s Washington State-Colorado State game, at least when the Cougars were on defense, and you might feel like your YouTube app is glitching. Here’s a sampling.

Daiyan Henley sack.

Quinn Roff sack.

Ron Stone Jr. sack.

Brennan Jackson sack.

Henley sack.

Andrew Edson sack.

No need to get your eyes checked. In that game, WSU totaled seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. The Cougars torched the Rams’ offensive line, which by the end of the season had ranked last in the entire FBS in sacks allowed per game – 4.92. That added up to 59 sacks.

As Washington State nears its season opener, a 4 p.m. Saturday rematch with Colorado State in Fort Collins, last season’s contest bears revisiting because it exposed the Rams’ most glaring weakness. Last season, they opened up a productive passing attack, and their quarterback set a record for completion percentage, but CSU slogged through a forgettable season in large part because its offensive line couldn’t hold up (or stay healthy).

On Saturday, the Cougars’ defense will look largely the same. The Rams’ offensive line will not. WSU will roll out Stone and Jackson on the edges, Hicks and Sam Lockett III in the secondary, Chau Smith-Wade at cornerback, same as it did last fall. Those guys, though, will attack an offensive front that has transformed almost entirely – which might swing this game more than any other position matchup.

Who will CSU roll out on Saturday? According to the Rams’ depth chart, their offensive line will be: left tackle Saveyon Henderson, left guard Oliver Jervis, center Jacob Gardner, right guard Andrew Cannon, right tackle Drew Moss.

In that group, Gardner is the only returning starter. Henderson transferred from Lane College, a junior college in Tennessee. Jervis transferred from Monmouth (New Jersey). Cannon didn’t play for CSU last season, and Moss transferred from Lamar, an FCS school in Texas.

Those guys will match up with WSU’s front four: Stone, Nusi Malani, David Gusta and Jackson. The Cougars’ backups – Ra’am Stevenson, Jernias Tafia, Ansel Din Mbuh, Na’im Rodman, Roff and Edson – will likely get meaningful snaps, too.

There’s no way to know how that will change things. On Wednesday, Washington State head coach Jake Dickert acknowledged as much, saying these things are difficult to parse – “you can’t study, hey, he’s high in his pass, he’s this and that, or this hand’s up or down, or his mentality or calls.”

But, Dickert said, the Cougars maintain an advantage in at least one area.

“Obviously, the players are different,” Dickert said, “but it’s also their first time matching our speed.”

That may loom large for Saturday’s game. CSU’s offensive line transfers may hail from smaller schools, but they’ve played a lot of football. Henderson has made 20 career college starts. Moss has made 22. Jervis has made 24 starts, and he’s played in 35 college games. Sure, they logged those snaps in conferences where the competition isn’t exactly that of even the Group of Five level, but this is about experience.

What those guys haven’t done is pass-protect against Stone and Jackson, who need no introduction around the WSU orbit.

“Scouting them is very difficult, so you focus on, here’s the core of what they do,” Dickert said. “They will make adjustments that we’re not ready and prepared for. Our rules and principles of defense and offense have to hold strong, and we gotta be more energized and play harder than them. That is what Week One entails.”

Washington State will want the same out of its secondary, which will be responsible for watching the eyes of Clay Millen, Colorado State’s redshirt sophomore quarterback. A year ago, the Snoqualmie, Washington, native set an FBS freshman record with a 72.2% completion percentage, the best in CSU history and the second best in Mountain West history.

Which is where Lockett, Hicks, Smith-Wade and cornerback Cam Lampkin come in. They get the honors of matching up with Millen and his group of wideouts: Tory Horton, a 2022 All-Mountain West first-teamer; Justus Ross-Simmons, who had three touchdown receptions last year; and Louis Brown IV, a sophomore who started the final two games of last season.

Millen isn’t just a threat to play catch with those guys. He’ll run the ball . In a game last season against Hawaii, Millen had 53 rushing yards. He pulled off 20-yarders against Wyoming and San Jose State. At 6-foot-3, Millen isn’t easy to bring down, which is why WSU safeties coach Jordan Malone is emphasizing one thing most to his guys – limit big plays.

“That’s what we’re stressing – make them make them go with the whole entire field,” Malone said. “The Cougs can’t beat the Cougs. So when it comes to coverage busts and things like that, we gotta limit those mistakes and we feel pretty good about where we’re at.”

Malone was willing to share that and more about his WSU secondary. What he denied was the idea that any of his guys bring any extra motivation to challenges like these. He tells his safeties and nickels to be “self-starters,” players who feel energized by the opponent, no matter who it is.

For Washington State, Saturday’s will be a tall order. The Cougars have been here before, though.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the ’85 Bears. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Little Giants,” Malone said. “It is one way to approach it. It is one way to go after it. We try to self-start ourselves, because if you need somebody else to start you, you’re off to a bad start.”