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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: Quarterback Cameron Ward takes ownership for lackluster performance in loss to UCLA

Washington State Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward and head coach Jake Dickert grimace during Saturday’s game against UCLA at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Most every time he has taken the field this fall, Cameron Ward has given Cougars fans reasons to like him. Washington State’s quarterback has displayed creativity and elusiveness, wisdom and maturity, illustrating how much he developed over the offseason.

After No. 19 Washington State fell to UCLA on Saturday, though, Ward showed a different kind of maturity. He took ownership of the loss. Maybe lots of quarterbacks would do so, but after all the scrambling he did in sizzling temperatures, Ward’s comments seemed to show how much he truly wants to win.

Asked about the impact of UCLA’s pass rush on his outing, 19-for-39 passing for 197 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, Ward said, “I don’t think it’s anything at all to be honest. At the end of the day, I just didn’t get the ball out. Personally, that’s why I feel like I had to scramble. … So we’re just gonna get back to that next week, get the ball out to the playmakers.”

In the loss, Ward was under pressure on 18 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and in those situations, he completed 5 of 14 passes. He threw one of his interceptions while being blitzed. His left tackle, Esa Pole, received a PFF pass-blocking grade of 0.0 – allowing 10 total pressures.

That much wasn’t on Ward, but that didn’t stop him from accepting the entirety of the blame. On several occasions, he eluded pressure and escaped out of the pocket, but he had to throw the ball away when he held on to it too long.

Handling pressure might be the next step in Ward’s development. Ward hadn’t faced much when he turned in four straight weeks of superb football. He led the Cougars to two ranked wins in three weeks. Ward could hardly do wrong across this first stretch of the season.

On Saturday, he looked mortal for the first time all year. The Cougars’ passing attack falls apart if Ward doesn’t have time to throw, despite his strong arm and receivers like Josh Kelly and Kyle Williams, who have made incredible plays in recent weeks. That became abundantly clear during Saturday’s game.

Ward knows that. But he also knows the importance of his leadership. In this case, that meant accepting responsibility after the game, particularly when it came to his two interceptions.

“Just bad decisions, I would say,” Ward said . “Not necessarily on the first one. Just left it inside. Can’t throw an out-ball inside. I threw it with touch, so that’s always gonna be a pick. The second one was just a bad ball by me, bad decision. So I take that on the chest. Those were two reasons, for sure, why we didn’t win this game.”

Ward had a point. On his first interception, he had a mostly clean pocket. He took a short dropback and threw an out-route to the right side to Kelly, who was open – until UCLA DB Alex Johnson left his man when he recognized the route. Ward underthrew the pass, which gave Johnson time to leap and make the interception.

On his second pick, Ward had to elude more pressure. He danced out of the pocket, surveyed the field, didn’t see anything he liked. Then he drifted to his right and spotted running back Nakia Watson. It seemed Ward didn’t see UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo, who made an easy pick. The Bruins scored seconds later on offense.

With those two plays, Ward and the Cougars’ offensive line made it clear that they aren’t perfect. The team can’t expect them to be, especially against a pass rush like the Bruins’, which now ranks atop the entire country, according to PFF.

So where does Ward go from here?

“You’ll see a different quarterback from this point forward,” Ward said. “You’ll see a different offense from this point forward. We’re going back Monday, watching the film. We’ll go watch film tomorrow. We just gonna take this one on the chin, just go play football the rest of the year.”

Ward didn’t exactly expand on what he meant by that – how different can he and his offense look six games into the year? – but during his first 1½ years at Washington State, he has improved. He’s made meaningful strides with his deep ball. He has avoided making poor decisions for the most part.

The next step in Ward’s development has long been stepping up as a leader. Sometimes that means accepting too much blame. Ahead of WSU’s home matchup with Arizona next week, Ward has made that part look easy.