TEMPE, Arizona — This doesn’t look like a team that began the year 1-3 and endured a coaching shake-up two weeks ago.
The Cougars (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) have changed the narrative. They put on a show Saturday in the desert, collecting five takeaways and stomping the heavily favored Arizona State Sun Devils 34-21 to move a win away from bowl eligibility and stay in the running for a Pac-12 North title.
WSU is finally entering its bye week.
The Cougars will “get rejuvenated for this final three-game stretch,” interim coach Jake Dickert said.
Up next is No. 7 Oregon. The Cougs shouldn’t be underdogs in their last two games, against winless Arizona and Apple Cup rival Washington.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Dickert added.
WSU’s prospects look bright after a complete performance at Sun Devil Stadium. Let’s look back:
‘One voice’ proving effective
In the first few games of the season, the Cougars were receiving their calls from offensive coordinator Brian Smith. He was replaced in that role in Week 5, after an underwhelming start from WSU’s run-and-shoot offense.
Former co-OC/quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann took over as play-caller for the next three games. Naturally, head coach Nick Rolovich had been heavily involved in offensive strategizing as well.
So the Cougars have been directed by three voices at various points of the season.
When Rolovich, Stutzmann and three other WSU coaches were terminated Oct. 18, interim coach Jake Dickert opted to simplify the run-and-shoot.
That’s not to mean he eliminated any schemes or watered down the offense. Rather, Dickert handed the reins to Smith and Smith alone, providing the OC the play-calling autonomy that had been absent earlier this year.
After a week of stabilizing and getting accustomed to the new approach, the Cougars had their second-best offensive display of the season, piling up 236 of their 400 yards — their No. 2 output in FBS play this year — in the first half against an ASU defense that topped the Pac-12 in the major stat categories. WSU matched its highest scoring output of the year vs. FBS competition.
“I just really think one voice has been great for our guys. I think Brian Smith has provided that, and the coaches coming in have done an amazing job of catching up to our language,” Dickert said, referring to recently hired run-and-shoot vets Dan Morrison (QBs) and Dennis McKnight (offensive line).
“And the guys went out there and made plays. It was just fun to watch. … I’m proud of the defense and the five takeaways, but man, the offense took the ball, went out and did what they can do, finished drives and scored touchdowns and played with energy and excitement.”
Bolstered by a turnover-forcing defense and supplied two short fields, the Cougar offense scored on four of six first-half drives, demonstrating an impressive blend of up-tempo and methodical tactics. WSU slowed down after halftime, but didn’t make any costly mistakes on offense and leaned on the ground game to drain the clock.
WSU ran the ball 42 times — more than it had in a game in 11 years — for a season-best 166 yards.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura was mostly efficient — save one errant shovel-pass pick — and didn’t take any sacks.
Electrifying slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. was a nightmare in single coverage, racking up a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. Jackson ranks second in the Pac-12 with 667 yards.
“(Jackson) has been inspiring all season,” Dickert said. “He’s that 1-2 punch with Travell (Harris). It’s just hard to match up with those guys in the slot. How are you going to roll your coverage? I think he took advantage of his matchups and Jayden is doing a good job of reading and just trusting, and letting these guys go make plays.”
There was a sense that Smith opened up the offense and gave de Laura the green light to sling it.
“That’s what I felt the last couple of games — take some shots down the field, let these guys be the playmakers they are,” Dickert said.
Dickert’s first win
WSU athletic director Pat Chun presented Dickert with the game ball in the locker room after one of the Cougs’ more memorable victories in recent memory. The acting boss — who’ll be considered for the permanent-boss role if he keeps this up — had joy painted all over his face as his players surrounded him, hopping about and spraying water in the air as they saluted Dickert for his first win at the helm of a program.
After leaving the locker room, the uplifting scene of which was caught on film by WSU’s social-media team, players shared their thoughts about helping their new coach to a career milestone.
“It’s awesome,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “Just to see all the work he puts in, the time he puts into us, we love him to death. The first thing we did was congratulate him on the win.”
The contents of a Gatorade bucket were dumped over Dickert’s head as he jogged onto the field to shake hands with ASU coach Herm Edwards.
Dickert has been quoted in the past saying his ultimate goal was to ascend to the head-coaching ranks. While the circumstances leading up to this opportunity weren’t ideal, the payoff was still sweet for someone who plugged away during a 14-year coaching career that began with him making eight moves in nine years.
“It’s something you dream about, you want, you work so hard for,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the team won this game.
“Just so happy for our players. They’ve been through a lot. It’ll sink in, what it means for me, at some point. But I’m just so happy for our guys and our team, and what it means for them.”
Dickert drew inspiration from his players’ maturity and commitment to the program. Likewise, the players were inspired by the coach’s dedication and composure despite the difficult assignment placed on his shoulders.
“It was an unfortunate situation that went down, but having coach Dickert here is probably one of the best things we have going week to week,” Jackson said. “Coach Dickert has a great mindset. He has a great motto that we abide by. We’re bought in to him. We don’t want to let him down, don’t want to let this university down.
“I’m just really, really proud. I ran up to him and hugged him and said congratulations, because it’s a huge win for him.”