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WSU offense still on schedule despite sputtering late against Colorado State

There was a lot more good than bad last week, and that bodes well for today’s game against Oregon.

Cam Ward had a huge first half against Colorado State and a ... less huge second half.
| Jack Ellis/CougCenter

As we sat at Pullman bars in the hours after the Washington State’s 38-7 win over Colorado State doing what people do in Pullman bars after a game, we pondered the role that sequencing was playing in our somewhat subdued feelings about what was objectively a cakewalk against an overmatched opponent.

The Cougs had easily covered the 16.5-point spread. They outgained the Rams by nearly 200 yards, and finished with a more than three-yard advantage in yards per play. On the whole, it was exactly what you would have expected a team that had just beaten Wisconsin on the road to do in its return home against a team that had shown few signs of life in its first two games.

Of course, the key phrase there is “on the whole,” as the stark contrast between the first half and the second half had caused it to feel a bit less satisfying than the overall stats might indicate.

The offense moved up and down the field with ridiculous ease in the first half, but it found the going puzzlingly difficult in the second half. After scoring touchdowns on each of their first four drives and averaging north of 8 yards per (non-kneel down) play before heading to the locker room, only a long TD drive to end the game (with plenty of reserves playing on both sides) allowed the Cougs to outgain the Rams after the break. And it wasn’t because the Rams were marching up and down the field.

Would we have felt better if the halves had been flipped? Would we have felt better if it the good drives had been sprinkled in with the bad ones?

Yes, we agreed, either of those would have felt better. Because when things go so bad so suddenly, you have to wonder: Was that first half even real? Like, did we somehow trick our way into four touchdowns, and now the jig is up? Particularly in the context of the offensive struggles of the first two games?

Intellectually, you know it’s not really that. But it’s not always easy to convince our emotions of it.

On a whim the other night, I decided to watch the “In 60” version of the game because I wanted some good vibes. Relatedly, I had only planned to watch the first half, but once I was into it, I decided to press on. Then I remembered a funny thing about watching that condensed format: Because you don’t have time to ruminate on each individual play, even a string of bad ones doesn’t feel quite as painful. It also makes it a little easier to spot patterns.

What I saw in both the first and second half left me really encouraged.

The first half was, quite literally, about as good as you could hope for — at least, up until the fumble that thwarted their fifth and final drive of the half. And beyond that, the first drive of the second half also was great! — at least, up until it weirdly stalled out at that CSU 5. That sometimes happens! We can lament the failure to punch it in from the five, but nobody converts all of their red zone TD opportunities. The field goal made WSU 4-for-5 on red zone TD opportunities, and any coach would take 80% in that metric in a heartbeat.

There were some incredible plays and throws. In particular, I don’t think we’re talking nearly enough about Cam Ward’s second TD. What an absolutely absurd throw and catch:

The third one wasn’t half bad either, as Ward slides away from pressure and makes a solid off-base throw:

There were plenty of other good throws as well — including some lovely crossers from Ward to his pal, fellow UIW transfer Robert Ferrel — as well as a pair of big runs.

Truly, it was everything that had been missing in the first two weeks. After Idaho, I said that the thing that concerned me most — and I use that word lightly, because I wasn’t freaking out or anything — was the lack of explosives, given WSU’s athletic advantage and the reputation of both Ward and offensive coordinator Eric Morris. There also were precious few of them against Wisconsin, but that was sort of expected because of the opponent and location.

Colorado State would be where we would expect to see a big step forward on that front, and we did: Through that first drive of the second half, 174 of the team’s passing yards were gained on just 8 passes, while 62 of the rushing yards were gained on two carries. It was undeniable progress.

Then ... the rest of the second half happened.

And here’s the thing I noticed on re-watch: My worst fears for the offense coming into the season basically played out in those final two quarters as the offensive line completely fell apart. No, Ward wasn’t great, but he was constantly under duress. That he only took two sacks was more a function of his ability to evade the rush than it was the offensive line protecting him. It was a complete and total mess — the sort of sabotage that made it damn near impossible to throw the ball.

It’s the sort of thing that should terrify me going forward. But it doesn’t.

To my eye, the offensive line’s issues looked more like being confounded by twists and stunts than it was being overpowered. Yeah, Ma’ake Fifita just got beat a time or two by a pretty good edge rusher, but other than that? It was some pretty basic stuff — over and over and over — that a line should be able to handle.

Except, the Cougs aren’t yet an experienced line. But they’re getting there, game by game, and it’s a heck of a lot better to have things fall apart in a game in which you cruise to victory rather than, say, today. Picking up those kinds of defensive line games is something that is correctable, and I trust that Clay McGuire has been working with his guys on that all week.

Everything that happened in the second half can be fixed. The growth shown in the first half is legitimate.

I don’t know exactly what that adds up to today against Oregon; the Ducks are awfully good defensively, so I anticipate that we won’t be lighting up the scoreboard. But I know that rewatching the game made me feel a lot better about the offense’s progress, and I won’t be surprised when they take another step forward today and play well enough to give WSU at least a chance to win the game.

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