PULLMAN — Washington State opened the Jake Dickert era with a victory, but the win produced mixed reactions, to say the least.
The Power Five Cougars were given a scare from their FCS neighbors at Idaho in a remarkably well-contested Battle of the Palouse game on Saturday night. WSU survived the upset bid, eking out a 24-17 decision.
Of course, that result won’t do much to inspire the WSU fan base heading into a significant nonconference matchup in Week 2.
To get a better sense of where they stand early this season, let’s break down the good and bad from their opener.
What worked …
As expected, WSU’s talent-packed defensive front harassed the Vandal offense throughout the night.The Cougs rotated six edge rushers. All of them were effective in rattling Idaho’s quarterback and containing its running backs — especially star “edge” Brennan Jackson, who came away with one of the Cougs’ seven sacks but had a steady presence in the backfield. Three veteran WSU tackles and one new face, redshirt freshman David Gusta, split snaps in the middle and supplied consistent push, helping the Cougs hold Idaho to just 1.8 yards per carry on 34 rushing attempts.
“To have a front four that I know I can trust and depend on to make plays and make it easier for me — life is just mellow,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “Sometimes, I just want to take a seat back there. … It’s a pleasure to have those guys up there in front of me and balling like that.”
WSU’s seven sacks were the team’s most in one game since 2017. The Cougars recorded 12 tackles for loss — their most in a game in seven years.
Edge rushers Jackson, Ron Stone Jr. and Andrew Edson combined for 3½ sacks.
But the Cougs shared production in the backfield.
Henley starred in his first game as a Coug, tallying a sack and three TFLs. DBs Armani Marsh and Jaden Hicks contributed sacks, and safety Jordan Lee made a couple of nice stops behind the line as the Cougar defenders swarmed to the ball all game.
WSU disguised its pressure packages and dialed up creative looks on passing downs, often trotting out four edge rushers on its “Cheetah” D-line and sending either a linebacker or a defensive back on a blitz.
WSU, a top-five team nationally last year in forcing turnovers, collected two timely take-aways: cornerback Chau Smith-Wade’s interception late in the second quarter, which set up a game-tying field goal, and Henley’s game-sealing interception just in front of the goal line with 10 seconds left on the clock.
Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy was held under 100 yards passing until late in the game. He threw for 116 yards on his final two series.
“It boosted our confidence a lot … knowing we’d get the ball back in two or three minutes,” quarterback Cameron Ward said of the defense. “I feel like they played their butts off today. They definitely kept us in the game.”
Overall, it was an encouraging opener for first-year coordinator Brian Ward and a WSU defensive unit that emerged last season as one of the Pac-12’s strongest. To be sure, Saturday’s game didn’t provide an accurate measuring stick for the Cougar defense, which had major advantages in speed, size and depth over the underdog FCS squad from Idaho. We’ll get a clearer picture of the team’s defensive potential next weekend, when the Cougs face 18th-ranked Wisconsin and its powerful ground game in Madison.
What needs work …
The “Coug Raid” offense had a nightmarish start in its inaugural game. Jaylen Jenkins lost a fumble on WSU’s sixth play from scrimmage. Receiver Donovan Ollie lost another on the Cougars’ seventh play. Ollie was stripped by Idaho cornerback Marcus Harris after making a short catch near the sideline. Harris scooped it up and had nothing but open field in front of him.The Vandals’ early score changed the direction of the game. It seemed to have a deflating effect on WSU’s offense for the next several drives — the Cougars moved 27 yards on three series, which ended in two punts and a missed 51-yard field goal.
“Just bad play, all around,” Ward said. “I don’t think we’re all feeling too good right now. We know we didn’t play our best ball … but come Wisconsin, you’re going to see a different offense.”
WSU’s All-Pac-12 first-team kicker had been dialed in throughout fall camp, but Dean Janikowski couldn’t come through in a crucial moment, missing a game-clinching 23-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter to give Idaho one final chance at tying the score. The Cougs’ offense had failed to cross the plane on two running plays inside Idaho’s 5-yard line.
After putting up 17 points on three consecutive scoring series, WSU’s Air Raid slipped into a slump and went nowhere during the ensuing three possessions, punting twice and losing another fumble.
Ward didn’t appear incredibly comfortable in his Cougar debut. He misfired high on a handful of passes and sometimes lingered too long in the backfield. He took three sacks. Ward didn’t get a ton of help from his pass-catchers, either. He had to stick mostly to short and intermediate routes — Ward threw 40 passes and accumulated just 215 yards. The separation between WSU receivers and Idaho DBs was surprisingly limited.
“I fully trust Cam. Cam has the keys to the car,” Dickert said. “He’s a big-time football player. We just gotta do some things better around him. There were a lot of busted routes we gotta clean up. I just think we can execute better and he’ll be the first one to take ownership and know that he can grow, too.”