Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: After win over Colorado State, Cougs see chance to improve on ground

Washington State Cougars running back Jaylen Jenkins (6) runs the ball against the Colorado State Rams during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Canvas Stadium in Fort Collins, Colo. WSU won the game 50–24.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – When he’s done coaching, Jake Dickert might consider a career in broadcasting. Washington State’s head man would make a great motivational speaker. He chooses his words carefully, and more often than not, he says the right things in the right spots.

Which is why on Saturday evening, when he thought about the way the Cougars’ offensive line played in WSU’s 50-24 season-opening win over Colorado State, it was clear he needed more time to assess things.

“That’s where I really gotta see the tape,” Dickert said.

There was lots for Dickert to consider. He liked the outing from left tackle Esa Pole, a transfer in his debut game at Washington State, and he was happy to see the return of right tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe, who had only returned from injury some seven days ahead of the Cougars’ season-opener. All told, WSU used seven offensive linemen, a first in some time for this program.

That’s because injuries have beset the unit, which looked like this to start the game: left tackle Pole, left guard Ma’ake Fifita, center Konner Gomness, right guard Brock Dieu, right tackle Fa’amoe. Backup Christy Nkanu subbed in for snaps at right tackle, and as he returns from injury himself, redshirt sophomore Christian Hilborn took snaps at left guard.

That’s the preferred position for Hilborn, a returning starter. In fall camp, when he wasn’t nursing a knee injury, he was playing at right guard. Last season, he made 10 of his 13 starts at left guard, but he also made several cameos at left tackle. He’s played all over, in other words, but as he regains full health, WSU wants to keep him at left guard.

“Because then,” Dickert said, “if we ever need him to bump out, he’s playing on the left tackle spot. We have Christy – you kinda have the extra right tackle spot. We’ve got Ma’ake and Brock rotating in at the right guard. So I think Christian will really be a staple on that left side.”

The good news for the Cougars is that the formations and personnel didn’t always matter on Saturday, at least not in the passing game. WSU’s offensive line cleared the way for quarterback Cameron Ward to record a career night: 37-for-49 passing for 451 yards and three touchdowns. On a few occasions when he did feel pressure, Ward tapped into his athleticism and ripped off a few nice scrambles for big gains.

He did take two sacks, though, and three if you count the rare bad snap from Gomness in the second frame. On one, Ward coughed up one of his two fumbles on the night. His pockets weren’t always clean, weren’t always designed for Ward to make the most of his tantalizing combination of athleticism and arm talent.

“I do think they have good defensive linemen,” Dickert said of Colorado State. “I think there were times where we wore down. I wanna be more efficient and effective in the run game, and we’ve gotta find ways to do that. So I think there’ll be a lot of learns.”

That’s the other part of the Cougars’ offensive line’s outing that’s worth examining: What happened in the run game?

The short answer is nothing encouraging for WSU. The Cougars’ leading rusher on Saturday was Ward, who totaled 13 carries for 40 yards and a touchdown, which came on a quarterback sneak, to the offensive line’s credit. Ward is a talented runner, to be sure, but nobody in the crimson and gray wants him to be the team’s leading rusher. “I really don’t,” Dickert said, “ever again.”

WSU’s running backs’ numbers looked a tad grisly. Starter Nakia Watson posted seven carries for 15 yards. No. 2 option Jaylen Jenkins carded seven carries for 11 yards. In fact, the Cougars’ best runners in this game were both quarterbacks: Ward and backup John Mateer, who used a three-yard touchdown run to finish with 16 rushing yards on four carries.

This all comes with a giant asterisk, of course: Washington State’s is an Air Raid offense. The Cougars are all but synonymous with it. Heck, they threw it 50 times in this win. New offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle has not been coy about his plan to air it out, and with that approach, he’s making proud all the men who came before him in that job.

Still, Washington State could stand to produce a better ground game, particularly against a Mountain West opponent like Colorado State. Where does the offensive line come in there? It’s hard to say, but here’s the reality: The Cougars’ linemen are better as pass-protectors. In that way, they’re perfect fits in Pullman, the site of punishing air attacks year after year.

But if they want to reach their offense’s full potential, WSU’s ground game must improve. To illustrate that point, let’s check out a sequence from late in the second quarter. On third-and-goal from the 4, Ward missed what looked like an easy touchdown pass to tight end Billy Riviere III, who had come wide open in the end zone.

So Washington State turned to the ground game. On fourth-and-goal, Ward handed it off to Watson, who was swarmed in the backfield, a 4-yard loss that ended the drive. It amounted to a gut punch for WSU, an opportunity for CSU to turn the tide and make things interesting.

That never happened, but in this case, that’s beside the point. In a critical spot, the Cougars couldn’t punch it in. Can they turn that around in time for next weekend, when Washington State hosts No. 19 Wisconsin in a giant matchup? The Cougars’ luck might depend on it.