Let’s not beat around the bush here – the Washington State Cougars aren’t supposed to be contending for titles this season, conference or otherwise, but after last season’s 6-7 record and bowl game, they are meant to be improving. With seven starters back on both sides of the ball, including most key components on offense and six of the defensive front seven, there should be no excuse for early season struggles.
Let’s start with the passing game. Quarterback Connor Halliday has already thrown more passes this season (113) than the academies will likely throw all season. He’s completed 78 for 921 yards and six TDs, with three interceptions. Good numbers, apart from the picks. But let’s break them down a little more. On third down, he’s completed just 15 of 26 passes – is that good enough for a team that lives and dies by the pass? In third and short situations (1-3), he completed 4 of 7 passes, with all four completions going for first downs. In third and medium (4-6 yards), he completed 4 of 6, but for just 14 yards. He did throw two TDs though. On third and long (7+), Halliday completed just 7 of 13 for 80 yards, with four first downs and a TD. What’s the secret to beating the Cougars? Keep them in long yardage situations – just ask Nevada.
The obvious answer would be to run the ball more. So far this season the Cougars have run the ball just 32 times, which is a little bit below last season’s average of 19 carries per game, but they have been playing from behind. Of course, they’ve gained just 44 yards on those 32 carries (including sacks). Not 44 yards per game – 44 yards total. Exclude seven sacks for 47 yards, and it still doesn’t look a whole lot better, with 25 carries for 79 yards in three games. Opponents don’t feel any threat from the Cougars’ ground game, and even when WSU does run, they’re not getting the yards to turn subsequent downs into short yardage. Jamal Morrow leads the team with 49 yards on 13 carries.
Finally to the defense. The unit wasn’t good against the run last season, and despite returning the majority of the front seven, they certainly haven’t gotten any better. Washington State has allowed 429 yards in their first two games, allowing opponents to remain in very manageable passing situations. Rutgers road the rushing of Paul James in week one, and he picked 173 yards and three TDs on 29 carries. More importantly though, James’ success opened up the defense for quarterback Gary Nova to chip in with 281 yards and two TDs. The following week, Nevada didn’t have a runner of James’ quality, but chose to pound away on the Cougars, leaving quarterback Cody Fajardo in manageable situations. Fajardo finished with 110 yards passing and 100 yards rushing.
With just two games gone in the season, is it fair to write off the Cougars? Of course not, but they face a brutal close to the season with the meat of their PAC 12 schedule over the last six games. This week, Washington State faces a Portland State team with a potent offense. Can the Cougars afford to get caught in a shootout? Controlling the clock might be a better option, and this could be an opportunity to work on that anemic running attack. The next two games are at Utah, and at home against California, both of whom look improved this season. Another loss, and Washington State’s already slim bowl hopes are as good as dead.
*Section Photo credit to Marcos Quintana, Icon SMI; Featured Photo (above) credit to William Mancebo, Getty Images