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Analysis: After blowout loss to Arizona, WSU’s offense must adapt — or things could get really hairy

PULLMAN – If Arizona really wanted to beat Washington State, to make its 44-6 win Saturday night even more meaningful, the Wildcats could have done more than just fly back to Tucson after the game.

They could have emailed the head coaches of the Cougars’ six remaining regular-season opponents with instructions on how to beat their offense.

Step 1: Rush three.

Step 2: Drop eight in coverage.

Step 3: Win.

After putting up an uninspiring performance, the Cougars appear to have nothing for such a simple recipe, which has doomed them in back-to-back losses. UCLA ran it to perfection last weekend. Arizona eviscerated overwhelmed WSU with it. To understand why quarterback Cameron Ward suddenly looks unsure and turnover-prone, look no further.

In other words, the book is out on Washington State’s offense, whose lack of any rushing attack has made it predictable, threatening to derail the rest of its season. If the Cougars’ offense resembled a Ferrari in their first four games, it now looks more like a beat-up Honda Civic, sputtering down the road.

“Not just rushing three. I mean, impacting with three – and not being able to gash them,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said. “Out of that dollar package, they came in giving up 8 yards per rush, and that wasn’t even close to what we were able to accomplish, and keep them off-balance and force them to do something else.”

In simplest terms, every issue WSU’s offense faced in the loss flowed from its inability to run the ball. Arizona didn’t respect Washington State’s run game, so the Wildcats dropped eight in coverage, blanketing the Cougars’ receivers. Up front, Arizona had few issues getting pressure rushing only three, which forced Ward to roll out of the pocket. Out there, Ward found nobody open, tossing one interception and coughing up one fumble.

For WSU (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12), it’s a concern because UCLA ran this scheme last week. Dickert understood Arizona would likely roll out something similar, and when the game started, his team had no answers for it.

The rushing totals for Washington State’s scholarship players: Jaylen Jenkins, four carries, 8 yards; Ward eight carries, 4 yards; Nakia Watson, four carries, 0 yards; and John Mateer, two carries for 0 yards.

That adds up to 19 carries for 12 yards – the exact same numbers from WSU’s loss to UCLA last week. Good luck finding a better way to illustrate this issue.

Every time it has come up, as they look for answers, Dickert and others have sung the same tune: It’s a mindset. We have to want to run the ball. We have to want to move people.

“Obviously, the main answer is running the football and being physical,” Dickert said, “and getting at the point of attack and getting the ball downhill, and being confident on that.”

Now it seems fair to wonder: Do these guys have that in them? If so, wouldn’t they have shown it by now?

This problem has plagued WSU in all six games. Early on, it felt like something the Cougars could correct, a weak spot they could iron out and open up their offense. Now it puts the rest of their season in danger because, after six games, they haven’t found any adjustments to make.

Screen passes? The blocking isn’t good enough.

Runs for backup quarterback Mateer? Arizona shut that down.

Bounce it outside? Watson and Jenkins haven’t shown the necessary burst.

Sub out left tackle Esa Pole? WSU languished even when it shuffled its offensive line.

WSU offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle has done well to display his creative side, with double-passes and two-quarterback formations, but now he faces the question that could define the rest of his debut season at Washington State: How does he beat this scheme?

It might feel tempting to say the answer is simple: Just run the ball. The truth is it is anything but.

Problem No. 1 has to do with the approach Washington State has always taken on offense. The Cougars have long prided themselves on the Air Raid offense, spreading things out and attacking with the pass, and they recruited offensive linemen to fit that style. From a 30,000-foot view, that has been a massive success.

But this group of linemen has shown the ugly side of that method: they struggle to run block. They entered with Pro Football Focus’ second-worst run-blocking grade in the Pac-12. Last week, they lost on their final play from scrimmage, when Ward could not get 1 yard on fourth down. In the first quarter, when Watson couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1 deep in his team’s territory, it became clear those issues are here to stay.

That is baked into their identities. Washington State’s offensive linemen are pass-blockers first. That’s true for Christian Hilborn, Ma’ake Fifita, Konner Gomness, Fa’alili Fa’amoe, Brock Dieu and Esa Pole. They have their flaws as pass-blockers, but their ability to keep quarterbacks upright is what makes them fit in well at Washington State.

Except recently, they haven’t held up against three-man rushes, the kind of issue that upends the entire operation. It would be one thing if opponents were simply rushing three. It’s another that, in the past two games, they have generated consistent pressure doing so.

“We saw some similar plans the last couple of weeks,” Dickert said, “getting more guys in coverage and trying to find some ways to put different pressures on Cam.”

Part of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Ward, who has started to look indecisive, both in the pocket and outside it. When he rolls out, he hasn’t found anyone open, which has forced him to hold on to the ball. After long enough, every offensive line will break down. Does Ward try running more? Does he look for receivers on shorter routes?

“We gotta find some better solutions, because this is a copycat world,” Dickert said, “and that’s what we’ll get going forward.”

The formula for beating Washington State’s offense is now public knowledge. How Dickert and the Cougars respond will color the rest of their season.

Arizona cornerback Tacario Davis picks off a Cam Ward pass intended for Washington State wide receiver Josh Kelly during the second half Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.