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Washington State football looks ahead to 2022

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Too early? Of course.

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State quarterback Victor Gabalis (10) calls out a play during the second half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Good morning and happy new year! The last day of 2021 saw our Washington State Cougars see their all-time Sun Bowl record fall to 2-1 after a 24-21 defeat at the hands of the Central Michigan Chippewas. The Cougs’ valiant effort fell short, literally, at least according to the officials and nobody else. But I digress.

The game marked an end to a roller coaster of the season, both on the field and off. It also marked the end of a roller coaster of a week, what with WSU not knowing its opponent shortly after arriving in El Paso. I’m sure the players are happy to be heading home for the next week. Let’s hope they can refresh and decompress and celebrate the end of a whirlwind season.

The Cougs finish 7-6 with an Apple Cup victory, and that is much better than a lot of fans had in mind before the season started. Sure, some expected plenty of wins, but only three of the CougCenter authors had WSU winning more than six games. Go back and read our projections—it’s always fun.

With that, here are some way-too-early thoughts on next season:

The offensive line has a lot of work to do this offseason

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State offensive lineman Christian Hilborn (61) run blocks during the first half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

It’s not fair to blast the offensive line after losing both tackles—one to an injury and the other to an opt-out. The replacements didn’t have a ton of time to get in quality reps, but that was not a pretty performance. There’s no reason to believe they can’t come together and figure it out in the offseason, but there’s plenty of improvement to be had.

The Spokesman-Review’s John Blanchette put it perfectly when he summed it up:

It was the Spring Game from Hell.

Spring games are routinely played in lousy weather. Spring games are heavy on forehead-slap mistakes and short on rhythm and crisp execution. Spring games see veteran players sitting one out and mark the jittery debuts of too many guys you’ve never heard of before – and may never hear of again – who find themselves in over their heads. Spring games reveal all the holes you have to fill and problems you have to solve before the games starting counting again.

Except you never lose the spring game.

Here’s to a better performance at the actual spring game!

What’s WSU’s quarterback situation next season?

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) scrambles and looks to pass during the first half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

You may have noticed this tweet that popped up right about when the game ended:

That’s Cameron Ward, the now-former quarterback at University of The Incarnate Word. You’ll recall WSU’s offensive coordinator—starting today?—is Eric Morris, the former head coach and UIW. The timing is just a tad suspicious.

You’ll also recall WSU head coach Jake Dickert said at his introductory press conference that WSU would, “center this around Jayden (de Laura) and his development and what he can do in the future.”

WSU’s QB depth is taking a big hit heading into the offseason: Cammon Cooper had eligibility remaining but announced his intention to transfer on Nov. 29. Adryan Lara de-committed on Dec. 9, and WSU didn’t sign a quarterback last month. That leaves the quarterback room with two scholarship QBs: de Laura and Xavier Ward. Dickert and co. will obviously need to snag a quarterback or two from the transfer portal, and Cameron Ward might be one of them. It sure was interesting to see that tweet from that individual at that time.

Fans should feel optimistic toward the 2022 defense, but the linebacker position needs to be restocked

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State linebacker Travion Brown (82) celebrates an interception during the second half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers played about million games apiece for WSU and will leave voids at linebacker heading into spring football. Travion Brown, who had a huge interception yesterday, has plenty of experience and will surely slot in. Kyle Thornton got plenty of playing time this season and should fit in nicely. Francisco Mauigoa could be ready as well. After that, your guess is as good as mine.

The 2022 defense could be good. The Cougs will need to fill some spots in the middle of the field, though.

Fan should feel less optimistic toward WSU’s running back situation next season

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State running back Nakia Watson (25) runs past a defender during the second half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Nakia Watson was put in a tough position as the team’s third string running back playing behind a reshuffled and inexperienced offensive line. He had a couple good runs but wasn’t as good as WSU needed that position to be. Much like the offensive line, there’s no reason to think this position group can’t improve over the offseason. It definitely needs to.

Here are the postgame interviews

Links

Recap and highlights: Washington State's comeback effort falls short in 24-21 Sun Bowl loss to Central Michigan | The Spokesman-Review
The Cougars nearly pulled off a 21-point comeback with a walk-on quarterback, but fell short as the Chippewas won their first bowl game since 2012.

'I'm proud of their fight': Washington State again shows resilience, but falls short of 21-point comeback in Sun Bowl loss to Central Michigan | The Spokesman-Review
Although a 21-point comeback victory wasn’t in the cards for a severely shorthanded Washington State football team, coach Jake Dickert would agree that the Cougars’ last performance of 2021 was on-brand.

John Blanchette: In a season filled with adversity, Washington State can't overcome once more in Sun Bowl defeat | The Spokesman-Review
You know it as the Sun Bowl — sorry, the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl — and being the second oldest of college football's post-season spectacles makes it the . . . what? The Granduncle of Them All?

On moment's notice, Washington State walk-on Victor Gabalis nearly leads Cougars to improbable comeback in Sun Bowl | The Spokesman-Review
Two months ago there wouldn't have been many reasons for Jake Dickert, then Washington State's defensive coordinator, to speak with Victor Gabalis, a walk-on quarterback who was third or fourth on the team's depth chart.

Difference makers: Lew Nichols carries Central Michigan to Sun Bowl win over WSU, despite Victor Galabis-led comeback | The Spokesman-Review
Lew Nichols, the nation's leading rusher, carried Central Michigan to a Sun Bowl win against Washington State.

Sun Bowl notebook: Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura sits in second half; Calvin Jackson Jr. sustains injury | The Spokesman-Review
Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura absorbed three sacks and was often scrambling for his life in the first half behind a makeshift offensive line.

When Washington State's marching band pulled out of the Sun Bowl, El Dorado High in El Paso jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity | The Spokesman-Review
EL PASO, Texas – Carl Ortega stands on a short ladder near the front of El Dorado High’s band room. His busy hands come to a brief pause and the music stops before Ortega delivers his next cue, pointing his right index finger toward the percussion section. A snare drum clicks four times, and an ensemble of flutes, clarinets and brass instruments starts to pump a familiar song through the large band room.

Cougars Comeback Held Off By CMU in Sun Bowl - Washington State University Athletics
Central Michigan held on for a 24-21 win.