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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: In Oregon loss, Ward faces some pocket presence questions as OL improves

Oregon Ducks defensive back Evan Williams brings down Washington State Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – If there’s a word for the condition Cameron Ward has developed, it might not be in the dictionary yet.

Washington State’s starting quarterback played a sterling game in his group’s loss to No. 9 Oregon on Saturday, completing 34 of 48 passes for 438 yards and a score. He showed fine touch on deep balls and, with receiver Lincoln Victor back in the fold, Ward looked more like himself.

But what do we call what happens when Ward has too much time in the pocket? Sticky hands? Hesitation? Indecisiveness? On several occasions in this game, WSU’s offensive line held up well in pass protection, but as Ward scanned the field, he held on to the ball for what felt like eons. At one point, he paused a scramble and stood completely stationary, then threw it away.

Blame at least one of Ward’s six sacks for plays like these, where he looked unsure of where to go. He had the most time in the pocket he’s had in a month, and in the three games that have followed, Ward has developed a strange propensity for hanging in the pocket a touch long – and thinning his team’s chances at converting third- and fourth-down scenarios.

“Proud of Cam,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “There were some situations where, maybe a couple of weeks ago, he fumbled that ball in the pocket. He did a better job with feeling (pressure) and that’s gonna be big for us going forward down the stretch.”

Ward did improve his ball security, but on Saturday he also had one fewer weapon with which to work. Backup running back Jaylen Jenkins was suspended for the game for a violation of team rules, WSU confirmed. The suspension length is unclear. In his place was walk-on running back Dylan Paine, who supplied 7 yards rushing, plus valuable pass-protection.

That may have made things a tad more difficult on Ward, but when he wasn’t finding receiver Victor for a school-record 16 catches, he showed a little indecisiveness when he had time to throw.

Late in the fourth frame, on a fourth-and-1 from the Oregon 8, Ward scrambled from the pocket. He didn’t see anyone open, so he kept drifting to his right, closer and closer to the boundary. He took what went down as a sack 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage – without getting a throw away.

On another instance earlier in the game, Oregon’s pass rush got through, and Ward had to scramble again. He made one guy miss, then backpedaled even further. With a second or two of time, he stood completely still for a beat. Then he threw the ball away.

Is Ward holding on to the ball too long? Are receivers not getting open? On Saturday, it looked like a mix of both.

“At the end of the day, we just gotta put up more points,” Ward said. “We’re not putting up enough points right now to help our defense out.”

The good news for the Cougars? It seems like a problem Ward can fix, perhaps a mental issue he can take steps to iron out. On offense, the more meaningful development for WSU had to do with its offensive line, which demonstrated a serious improvement in pass protection.

That was reflected in Pro Football Focus’ grades. Left guard Christian Hilborn fared the best, earning a grade of 89.4, which ranked fourth nationwide and tops in the Pac-12 for Week 8. Center Konner Gomness graded at 86.6, third in the Pac-12. Right guard Brock Dieu came in at 80.4, right tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe at at 78.6 and left tackle Esa Pole at 71.3.

Perhaps even more important, WSU may have found a permanent lineup up front. In their loss to Arizona last weekend, they tinkered with personnel, shuffling guys around to find the best configuration. That, according to Dickert, is what the Cougars rolled with against Oregon. It bumps out right guard Ma’ake Fifita, who started each of Washington State’s first six games.

“I think that’s the consistency that we need,” Dickert said. “Brock’s a bulldog in there. I mean it. Brock waited his turn, just got better every day. He was kinda out of the rotation big time last year, and then found a way to grit it out. And he does a lot of just really good things.

“Christian Hilborn and Esa – I just think through some of the cycling and some of the competition, they’ve come out of this on the other side playing better football. And that’s exactly what we needed as a football team.”

The Cougars may have looked far better in pass protection, but their run-blocking still needs work. Running back Nakia Watson has a hand in that too. On Saturday, he posted eight carries for 20 yards, and that doesn’t include a critical drop on third down in the first quarter. He did plunge in for a touchdown – an encouraging improvement in short-yardage situations – but his longest rush went for 5 yards.

Without Jenkins in the fold, he may need to accept a larger load. Only time will tell how that goes, but an improving offensive line is a start.