What Happened to Washington State This Year?

    After a fast 4-0 start to the season, the Washington State Cougars have fallen from grace with six straight losses and threatening to miss bowl season.

    The Washington State Cougars were flying high at the beginning of the season with four straight wins. Two of those wins were against teams in the Top 25, knocking off 19th-ranked Wisconsin and 14th-ranked Oregon State. The Cougars went into their bye week with a 4-0 record and ranked 13th in the country.

    So, what happened that saw them go from the top of the Pac-12 to losers of six straight games?

    What Has Gone Wrong with Washington State?

    Cam Ward Lost His Heisman Hype

    There weren’t many quarterbacks in the country that were performing as well as Cam Ward at the beginning of the season. Ward was electric, using his legs to pick up yards and maintaining pinpoint accuracy on his throws. Best of all, he was protecting the football.

    Through the first four games of the season, Ward completed 74.6% of his passes, averaging 347.5 yards per game in the air. He threw 13 touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 109 rushing yards and three scores.

    That confidence slowly disappeared during the six-game losing streak. His numbers dropped to a 63.4% completion rate and he averaged just 289.5 yards per game passing. Ward’s touchdown numbers fell to seven passing and three rushing scores, with five interceptions.

    MORE: 2023 Heisman Odds Update

    There are a lot of elements to why Ward declined from the first four games of the season, but turnovers have played a key role. It should be noted that Ward is still pacing for a better season than what he had in 2022 with the Cougars.

    There’s still a bit of disappointment factoring in, considering that Ward was on his way to a trip to New York for the Heisman — now that seems like a pipe dream.

    Rushing Attack, Offensive Line Have Not Helped

    Again, it’s worth noting that Ward should not take all the blame for the offense struggling. The offense took a dip from averaging 45.8 points per game through four games to 20 points per game in the last six contests. One reason why? The running game.

    Washington State’s rushing attack is one of the worst in the nation. They are third-to-last in rushing yards per game with 83.2. Their leading rusher this season is senior running back Nakia Watson, who has just 210 yards. Granted, the Cougars are not known as a running team, but not having that element in their game has cost them wins.

    Their offensive line has not done a great job of opening holes in the line for the backs to run. They are averaging three yards per carry. Washington State’s offensive line has also allowed 31 sacks on Ward this season which is the 11th-most in the nation. Ward has lost 205 yards alone from sacks he took this year.

    This is an offense that has the capability of scoring points — they scored over 50 points in a game twice through their four-game winning streak. Since then, they scored under 10 points twice and only scored over 30 points once.

    There should be some optimism after the Cal Golden Bears game, but still, there are weaknesses to the offense hindering Ward and his three big receiving targets (Lincoln Victor, Kyle Williams, and Josh Kelly) from unleashing their full potential.

    Defensive Struggling with Consistency

    Another aspect of the Cougars’ struggles comes from their defense. The defensive unit has struggled to stop the run for most of the season, allowing 161.8 yards per game. When it comes down to total defense, they rank 101st in the country, giving 411.2 yards per game.

    Outside of the Stanford game, the defense has been allowing a lot of points as well. They are the fifth-worst team in the conference in points allowed per game (29.9). During their losing streak, they have allowed 38 or more points in four of those six losses. In their four wins, they allowed over 30 points just once.

    MORE: Pac-12 QB Rankings

    They haven’t been able to create turnovers much this season, only generating 11 total turnovers. Washington State has recorded six interceptions and five fumble recoveries. That puts them tied for 119th in the country in turnovers gained.

    Their defense seems to fold at the end of the game when they are needed the most. The UCLA and Stanford games are prime examples of the defense allowing the game-winning scores in the fourth quarter. Even in the Cal game, they were only down by four points going into the fourth quarter and two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the quarter doomed them.

    Coaching Staff Needs Accountability

    When a team has two key fumbles — both being returned for touchdowns — at some point responsibility needs to lie with the coaching staff.

    Washington State has struggled with key mistakes in big moments in games that have set them back and cost them wins. It was similar to the UCLA loss where they had four turnovers to lose the game despite it being only a one-possession game. Penalties have hurt them, too, as they have had at least four penalties in each of their six losses.

    Mistakes like that always reflect the coaching staff not holding the team accountable. Washington State head coach Jake Dickert has done a good job riding the wave since the firing of former head coach Nick Rolovich in 2021.

    However, he has had a 14-14 record in two and a half seasons there with a 0-2 bowl game record. The coaching must bring the talent together with more consistency.

    Cougar fans will likely be disappointed in their team’s season as they finish the season at home against Colorado and on the road against No. 5 Washington. It doesn’t appear on paper that a bowl game will be in the cards.

    All they can hope is Ward will come back for another season and Washington State will have a chance to bounce back in 2024 in a critical season for the program.

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