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Two-minute drill: Washington State’s keys to victory against Colorado State

Story of the game …Washington State opens its season with a road matchup with Colorado State, set for 4 p.m. Saturday in Fort Collins, Colorado. The Cougars are looking to win their fifth season opener in six tries.

It’s a rematch of last season’s game in Pullman, where WSU dismantled CSU 38-7 . In that one, Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward completed 24 of 34 passes for 299 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, an encouraging beginning to what turned into a solid year for the Cougars’ returning starter.

In large part, that’s why WSU is favored by over 10 points in this game, which will be broadcast by the CBS Sports Network.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s a new team, through the portal and through recruiting,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “I have a ton of respect for Coach (Jay) Norvell – just a ton of respect for how we build programs, how he schemes, the way he motivates, and he’s gonna build a really good program there.”

When Washington State has the ball …For the Cougars, it will be important to get off to a nice start on offense. It’s one thing that they’ll be working with a new wide receiver corps and two new offensive linemen. It’s another that they’re playing on the road, in a stadium that will likely approach its capacity of 36,500.

WSU can mitigate the noise by opening with a scoring drive on its first series. The Cougars wouldn’t care how that happens, but their offense might look even better if it happens on the ground. Theirs is an Air Raid offense. They’re going to throw the ball. What better way to open that up than by establishing a punishing rushing attack with Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins?

In either scenario, Washington State’s offensive line will need to control the line of scrimmage. The Cougars’ front five – Esa Pole, Ma’ake Fifita, Konner Gomness, Brock Dieu and Fa’alili Fa’amoe – get the challenge of a defensive line that features all-conference pick Mohamed Kamara, plus Grady Kelly (half a tackle for loss and half a sack in last season’s matchup) and Cam Bariteau, a junior making his first career start.

If the Cougars’ offensive line gives Ward time to sit back and throw, watch out. Throughout fall camp, transfer receivers like DT Sheffield and Kyle Williams displayed top speed, the kind that can help blow this game open if given the opportunity. That’s why WSU’s offensive line play is so important – the passing attack hinges on its success.

“We understand some things that we did well last season, and this season, we’re gonna pick up on things that we were kind of down on,” WSU offensive lineman Ma’ake Fifita said after one practice during fall camp. “I think we’ve made huge strides in the run game. I think we’re really excited to push the ball forward in short situations, short-down situations. So I think that’s a huge step for us, running the ball.”

When Colorado State has the ball …If Washington State’s defensive line – namely edges Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. – can get consistent pressure on CSU quarterback Clay Millen, the Cougars should cruise. That may swing the entire game, at least when the Rams are on offense, because if Millen can’t sit back in the pocket, his offense will sputter and clank.

We can look at last season’s game, when the Cougars racked up seven sacks on the Rams’ offensive line, but that unit has changed almost entirely. Gone are four of those linemen, the ones who conspired to give up the most sacks in the entire FBS, so that game won’t much inform this upcoming one.

Let’s say WSU can’t generate much pressure, though. The Cougars’ secondary will then need to step up, because Millen will air it out to his heart’s content. His favorite target is receiver Tory Horton, one of the best wideouts in the country, an all-conference first-teamer who totaled 71 catches for 1,131 and eight touchdowns last season.

Regardless of the target, though, the Rams will make like the Cougars and throw, throw, throw. Can WSU cornerbacks Chau Smith-Wade and Cam Lampkin disrupt passes? Can safeties Sam Lockett III and Jaden Hicks fly to the right places? If so, WSU should win handily. If not, well, watch out.