The Washington State Cougars opened up their 2023 campaign with a 50-24 thumping of the Colorado State Rams in Fort Collins.
After falling behind 3-0 to start the game, WSU (1-0) rattled off 36 unanswered points and suffocated the CSU (0-1) offense, holding the Rams to under 100 yards of total offense in the first half. While the Rams were able to tack on a kick return touchdown and two more offensive touchdowns in the second half, it was far too little and too late. Cam Ward excelled in his first game under the new Ben Arbuckle offense, throwing for 451 yards and three touchdowns while completing 37 of 49 passes and running for 40 yards and a rushing touchdown. Lincoln Victor also had a career day, hauling in 11 catches for 168 yards.
The Rams won the opening coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. Victor got the offense started with an 11-yard catch and run on the first play up to the CSU 36, but WSU would go no further, punting the ball on the seasons opening drive. Starting at their own 24, the Rams parlayed a pair of 6 yard runs into a 16-yard pass into WSU territory. The Rams continued to chip away, converting a 3rd and 5 from the WSU 32 to get into the red zone. WSU’s defense would halt CSU there, holding the Rams to a 38-yard field goal for a 3-0 Ram lead.
On his second possession calling the Cougar offense, Arbuckle drew up a set of plays that made Cam Ward look more like Cam Newton. WSU’s first touchdown drive of the season went 75 yards on seven plays, capped off by Ward’s third rushing attempt of the drive on a QB push. Not forgotten should be Josh Kelly’s great toe-drag catch just prior to the touchdown at the one yard line.
WSU’s offense quickly got the ball back after a Ram three and out. Despite a disastrous start on a double reverse that went 10 yards backwards, the Cougars quickly erased the loss yardage on two plays to keep the drive moving. A facemask penalty tacked on to a 19 yard catch by Carlos Hernandez put WSU firmly into Ram territory. Unfortunately the momentum came to a screeching holt when Ward lost the football on a scramble and the Rams jumped on it.
The Cougar defense bailed out Ward’s butterfingers with yet another quick three and out. DT Sheffield scooped up the Aussie style line drive punt and returned it 20 yards to set WSU up at their own 37. WSU rolled the slow burning drive into the second quarter and found the end zone again, this time through the air for the short yard score to Kyle Williams to take a commanding 14-3 lead.
Once again WSU’s defense stuffed the Ram offense to set up a 4th and 1 inside their own territory. The Rams decided to roll the dice and go for it, but yet again WSU’s defense was in the backfield to force a turnover on downs. Despite the great starting field possession, Ward lost nine yards on first down after a sack and the offense couldn’t recover from there.
After CSU elected to punt this time on another 4th and 1, WSU again pushed right through the Ram defense all the way to the one yard line. On 3rd and goal, Ward rolled out to the right on play action and had Billy Rivere wide open on a flat route in the end zone. Ward’s pass floated high over the TE for an incompletion. WSU’s last chance at points on 4th and goal from the one was stopped dead in its tracks on a draw play that the Rams read perfectly, tackling Nakia Watson in the backfield for a brutal turnover on downs.
WSU got one last chance before the half with 1:45 to go near midfield but couldn’t get much going. With just seconds remaining, Ward hit Lincoln Victor for seven yards to the CSU 38 to give kicker Dean Janikowski a chance at a career long 55 yard field goal. Janikowski absolutely drilled it with room to spare to give WSU a 17-3 halftime lead.
The recipe of dominance continued into the second half for WSU. A Rams three and out to open to the third quarter flipped into another quick WSU drive into the red zone. Arbuckle and the Cougs pulled out a specialty goal line package that featured athletic backup QB John Mateer entering the game. Unlike WSU’s attempt at a backup QB end zone package a few years back, Mateer took the snap, beat the defense to the corner on the outside and into the end zone for another Cougar touchdown.
The Rams finally got their first first down since early in the first quarter on an 11-yard pass to open the next drive. However, any slight momentum CSU may have felt from that conversion was evaporated as Rams QB Clay Millen’s pass was picked off by Jaden Hicks with plenty of green grass in front of him for a pick six.
After the Rams and Cougars traded turnover on downs, Rams backup QB Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi, who entered after Millen was slow to get up a few plays prior, delivered another interception into the hands of Jackson Lataimua dominant defensive day continued.
WSU capitalized on the Ram turnover, scoring a short passing touchdown to open the final quarter to make it 36 unanswered points.
The Rams finally answered with a long 98-yard kickoff return for their first trip into the end zone. WSU responded with a seven play, 75 yard touchdown drive with Kelly catching his first touchdown as a Coug from 25 yards out to go back up 33 points.
CSU tacked on back-to-back touchdowns on a broken coverage score and a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to make the game look a little closer, but WSU would get the last laugh with a touchdown drive from the second string offense to deliver a 50-burger in the final seconds.
The Cougars played far from a perfect game. Ward had two fumbles and an overthrown touchdown, the goal line offense looked shaky a times, the defense gave up a few big plays towards the end of the game and the special teams got gashed for a touchdown return. Yet through all of this, WSU was firmly in control of this football game after their first touchdown drive and still won by 26 points.
The new Arbuckle offense was humming, averaging 6.4 yards per play and made great use of Ward’s legs with some great designed runs. While the Cougar defense wasn’t able to get to the Rams QBs as much as they did last year, WSU was still able to put enough pressure on them to make them uncomfortable and force some mistakes. The defense was also able to get off the field at a very high rate as the Rams could only convert one of their first 10 third downs.
Overall, Washington State just looked like the far better team and it wasn’t close. This apparently may be a big surprise to some people who think WSU belongs among the likes of Colorado State. Yet, WSU once again proved that they are a league above the Rams. Will that change some peoples opinion? Probably not. They probably weren’t even watching, right? But who cares about them. That’s a conversation we can have another time.
WSU will return back home for a big time matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers, who escaped the Buffalo Bulls 38-17 on Saturday.