Opening week of the college football season can be exciting, mystifying and frustrating. Washington State’s first game of the 2023 season was all those things Saturday , mainly thanks to the Cougars’ offense. But it was also a victory, 50-24 over host Colorado State, brought to you – eventually – by the broadcast partner of the Mountain West Conference, CBS Sports Network.
The CBSSN crew? A trio that just might be doing more WSU games in the not-so-distant future, Carter Blackburn on play-by-play, former UCLA offensive lineman Randy Cross with the analysis and Justin Adams on the sideline.
What they saw
• We really don’t know about the first 10 minutes of game action as the new college football speedup rules didn’t work for the preceding game on the network. Western Kentucky’s 41-24 win over UCF ran exactly 30 minutes too long, meaning, unless you had access to the CBSSN website, you didn’t get to watch.
But when the national broadcast joined the game, the Cougars were just hitting high gear. The last play before the switch was a 10-yard loss on an ill-timed Wazzu reverse in its territory, giving Cameron Ward and the offense a longer field to navigate.
Navigate it the Cougars did, until Ward just dropped the ball at the CSU 30 while trying to scramble, giving the Rams life, trailing 7-3. That set the offensive tone for the first half , with Ward and WSU moving the ball, only to have mistakes derail promising scoring opportunities.
“So far the most significant factor in the Colorado State defense against Cam Ward, and this offense is the Cougars’ own sloppiness,” Cross said after WSU misfired at midfield in the second quarter.
• The list of misses was long in the first half, despite Ward scoring on a 1-yard sneak and hitting Kyle Williams for an easy 3-yard score.
The Cougars came up empty on a fourth-and-goal from the 1, when Nakia Watson was stuffed on an inside run. But the play shouldn’t even have been necessary as Ward floated the third-down pass about a yard too long for an open Billy Riviere III in the end zone.
There was also a fumble and an end-of-half possession that wasted considerable time before Dean Janikowski bailed out the Cougars with a 55-yard end-of-half field goal. It was 17-3 at halftime, but WSU had 276 yards of total offense compared to Colorado State’s 92.
The second half started out differently, with the defense forcing its sixth three- or four-and-out, giving WSU the ball at its 30. Six plays later, the Cougars were in the end zone, with backup quarterback John Mateer running wide right for the final yard.
The Rams would have liked another three-and-out on their next possession, but instead Jaden Hicks undercut an out route and returned the interception 37 yards.
But on both touchdowns, WSU tried for the 2-pointer and failed. Then, with 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Ward was sacked and fumbled deep in CSU territory on a fourth-down play.
“Put another play in the category of ‘lessons to be learned,’ ” Cross said.
Despite the issues, Ward threw for a career-high 451 yards in the debut of Ben Arbuckle’s offense. He also threw for three touchdowns and had no interceptions.
“This is an ideal situation for a coach, too,” Cross said. “If you are Ben Arbuckle, a lot of things you can work on, a lot of flaws, a lot of mistakes (and) a lot of positives to praise.”
• The other end was good enough to please coach Jake Dickert in his on-camera interview with Adams to start the fourth quarter.
Cross had the best description of the Cougars’ defense, compared it to a boa constrictor, squeezing the breath out of the Rams’ offense.
The first CSU touchdown came on a 98-yard early fourth-quarter kickoff return. Overall, the Rams finished with 357 yards, with 194 coming in the fourth quarter, 75 of them on a fourth-quarter touchdown on a secondary breakdown.
The Cougars also lost another defensive touchdown when replay overruled a scoop-and-score by Kapena Gushiken near midfield.
“To me, that’s possession,” and a catch, Cross said after Brian Brown decided it wasn’t. That led to CSU’s final score.
What we saw
• If you tuned into USC’s season opener last week on the Pac-12 Network, you heard Ted Robinson say in the pregame the broadcast would not be dealing with realignment. It was going to focus on what was happening on the field.
Thankfully, CBS Sports Network had no such limitations. Blackburn and Cross were given the opportunity to confront the Pac-12’s demise head-on through an interview with Mountain West Commissioner Gloria Nevarez.
Nevarez joined the booth in the second quarter and answered questions, including one from Cross about a possible resurrection of the conference with possibly all of the MWC members.
“Everyone is talking about the merger, the reverse merger,” Nevarez said as the game paused for a while, “what does that mean, the dissolution of one, taking over the other, vice-versa or both and becoming something new?
“There is just so much that has to be sorted out right now.”
It will have to be, though, as WSU and Oregon State have few options. Nevarez’s conference may be the best option whatever the result.
“I feel really good where the Mountain West is right now,” she said. “We’re ready to explore and open to anything that makes us stronger.”
She made a pitch that the leftover Northwest duo would fit right in, without naming them.
“Our schools have a lot in common, not only in geography but in accessible, higher education, serving the community,” she said, before getting to the financial aspect of any melding. “There is a really good TV deal. We have a chance to go to market in a couple years and I think we’re really well-positioned.”