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Opponent Offensive Preview: Wards of the State

Dawgs Seek to Contain Cougar Passing Attack

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Washington State has been known for the last decade as one of the foremost purveyors of the Air Raid offense. Mike Leach brought the offense to Pullman in 2012 and brought the school to its greatest heights in decades. After briefly dabbling in a more run-and-gun flavored attack under Nick Rolovich, Jake Dickert has guided them back to the Leach coaching tree. In 2022, Eric Morris led Cameron Ward the OC and the team made it back to bowl eligibility. Morris left to be the head coach of North Texas and Dickert brought in Ben Arbuckle, a fast rising offensive guru who went from Houston Baptist to Western Kentucky.

Although WSU continues to play fast and aggressively, the components are a bit questionable under the hood. The Cougs are 34th nationally in points per game with 32.6 and 31st in offensive SP+. The Expected Points Added metrics are not as pretty; they are 94th in overall offensive EPA and only 82nd in EPA per dropback, the bread and butter of the offense.

Quarterback

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Ward is the straw the stirs the drink in Pullman. The fourth-year junior already has 116 TDs and 13,554 career passing yards. He improved his average yards per attempt from 6.5 to 7.8 this year- closer to his impressive averages at Incarnate Word pre-transfer- and improved his TD to INT ratio from 23/9 to 22/5. However, Ward has had had trouble when he doesn’t get the ball in the air. He has been sacked 34 times for the season, including 21 times in the last five games. Also, despite his low interception total, he has fumbled 12 times. Altogether, Ward has shown an ability to get the ball downfield to a variety of dangerous receiving options, but when the ball doesn’t get out quickly, he too often takes sacks and/or fumbles the ball.

Running Back

Although the Cougars have been a heavily pass-first team from the start of the Leach era to the present, they have always been able to sneak out some valuable yards on the ground. Husky fans will rue the memory of players like Max Borghi and James Williams, who could pile up five or six yards er carry with extra defenders in coverage. The Cougars have not been able to recapture that dual threat this season. Nakia Watson is the primary running back and he has only 257 yards on 78 carries (3.3 YPC). Watson has been more dangerous as a receiving option with 20 catches for 224. Djouvensky Schlenbaker has spelled Watson and found a bit more success to the tune of 132 yards on 31 carries. The Cougs have also tried Dylan Paine, who has missed time and been only marginally effective when healthy. The wildcard is true freshman Leo Pulalasi, who has 05 yards on 18 carries in only two games. He missed last week’s game against Colorado but is expected to be back for the Apple Cup. Overall, it has added up to one of the least effective rushing attacks in the country, ranking 127 in EPA per rush.

Wide Receiver

While Ward is the bigger name, it has been the receiver room that has kept the WSU offense afloat this year. Lincoln Victor has emerged as a consistent possession threat as a fifth-year senior. Victor started at Hawaii and transferred to WSU in 2021. Through his first four seasons, he never had more than 300 receiving yards or 26 catches. He has benefited from Arbuckle’s system with 78 catches for 779 yards and 4 TDs. The low yards per catch reflect the way WSU uses Victor as a safety valve and quick hitter to help make up for the lack of a running game.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Craig Strobeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars also feature two more traditional outside receivers who have put up good numbers. Kyle Williams put up three productive seasons at UNLV before coming to Pullman for this year. He has topped his previous career highs with 56 catches for 758 yards and 5 TDs. Josh Kelly is yet another MWC transfer who has reached new heights for Wazzu. Kelly played for Kalen DeBoer and Ryan Grubb at Fresno State and has totaled 53/817/7 for the Cougars this year. WSU rarely uses a TE, but when they do, 6’2” Cooper Mathers, a converted LB, is the primary option. The triple-threat option at receiver allows Ward to spread the ball around the field and will test a depleted UW secondary. Jabbar Muhammad might be able to shut down one of Williams or Kelly on the outside, but the other DBs are will have to play well to get WSU off the field.

Offensive Line

A careful reading of the previous sections probably gives you a pretty good idea of how WSU’s offensive line has performed this season. The running game has been abysmal and the biggest problem in the passing attack is that the QB gets hit too much. That all starts with the offensive line. Interestingly, despite transfers starting all over the field, the five starting offensive linemen are all career Cougars, although none were particularly highly-rated as recruits. LT Esa Pole was the highest-rated recruit at .8656. The rest of the group were low three-star recruits out of high school and have not surpassed that expectation in their performance. Due to Ward’s sack and fumbling issues, it will be essential for Bralen Trice to continue his recent run of QB pressure. If the Dawgs can take advantage of this questionable front, they can get WSU off the field enough to pull away in the game.