If ever there was a season for a breakthrough in the North, it’s sure looking like it would be 2022. The Oregon Ducks are going to recruit just as well under Dan Lanning as they’ve grown accustomed to in recent years (maybe better…), but Year 1s mean transition. No matter how talented Oregon is, transitions are transitions and the Cougars get Oregon early in the season.

That could prove to be a really, really good thing. Or nothing. We’ll see.

It was a better-than-expected season in 2021 for the Cougars in spite of coaching turbulence and distractions galore, and there are some wondering if the Cougs can challenge for the North in coach Jake Dickert’s first full season in charge.

What happened with Nick Rolovich happened, and there’s no sense rehashing it all here. What is worth pointing out is the 2021 Cougars showed serious resiliency. They opened the year 1-3, then went 6-2 down the stretch to earn a spot in the Sun Bowl.

The postseason game against Central Michigan—a 24-21 loss—highlighted real work that needs to be done on the offensive line (more on that later), but there wasn’t much else to take from it given the circumstances. Washington State fought back, as it did all season. That was that.

Now Dickert has a new team in place hoping to build off last year’s success. He has a new offensive coordinator in former Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris, a new defensive coordinator in former Nevada DC Brian Ward, and a new quarterback in former UIW star Cameron Ward.

Ward is the crux of all the offseason excitement around the Wazzu program.

He was one of the most coveted prizes of this transfer class and Washington State landed not only him but his former coach as his new play-caller. Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 13 games this past season, helping Incarnate Word to the second round of the FCS playoffs. He completed 65% of his pass attempts on the year.

A 6-foot-3, 220-pound quarterback with multiple years of eligibility, Ward is the total package—good size, strong arm, accurate ball, quick release. It essentially swapped 2021 Offensive Freshman of the Year Jayden de Laura (Arizona) for Ward. In most instances, you’d value continuity for a rising team—and Dickert publicly said de Laura was the right guy to build their offense around—but with the Ward-Morris combo in place, Washington State has another “right guy, right fit” kind of situation on its hands. The Coug Raid should be fun.

WSU might even have better quarterback play in 2022 than it did in 2021. And that would certainly help its division title chances.

What worked in 2021

Led by Armani Marsh and Jaylen Watson, Washington State had one of the better pass defenses in the conference last season.

The Cougars gave up only 6.5 yards per pass, the second-best mark in the league. They held opposing quarterbacks just a hair under 60% on their pass attempts for the season (third-lowest in the league) and to the third-lowest rating in the league. Only Arizona State and Oregon had more interceptions, but Wazzu was one of the best in the conference at turning opportunities into takeaways.

They just didn’t get beat deep very often. Teams had an explosive pass play rate (20-plus yards) of 7.8% against the Cougars, a mark that was the 11th best in the country. And opponents threw it against WSU more than they ran it.

That stinginess against the pass led to a slightly above average third-down defense and the Pac-12’s best red zone defense. Opponents only scored points on 72% of their trips inside the 20.

And this was a defense that didn’t get a ton of help in terms of starting field position.

What didn’t work in 2021

The offensive line when Washington State needed to run it.

Washington State was aggressively average at staying on schedule. On passing downs, de Laura was good. But WSU’s run game left plenty to be desired. The Cougars’ 3.9 yards per carry ranked 88th nationally. Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh ran hard, but in short-yardage situations the Cougs came up short more often than not.

The Cougs ranked:

  • 77th in power success rate (runs on third or fourth down, 2 yards or less, that earned a first or a score)
  • 95th in line yards per carry (a Football Outsiders number that attributes a portion of rushing success to the o-line, defined here)
  • 102nd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain 4 yards when 4 yards are made available)
  • 125th in stuff rate (percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage)

What’s coming back

Not much. Using The Action Network’s returning production database, which does factor transfer production into account for additions, the Cougars are returning only 21% of offensive production from last season (126th) and 25% of their defensive production (118th).

Both tackles are gone. Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan were reliable pillars bookending the WSU line, with 84 starts between them across four years. Cade Beresford and Brian Greene transferred out of the program. Beresford allowed only one pressure in 249 pass-blocking snaps. Center should probably be up for grabs this offseason after uneven play in 2021—Konner Gomness finished 2021 with a 31.9 grade as a pass-blocker and a 59.5 grade as a run-blocker, per PFF.

Either guard spot could be viewed as “settled” heading into spring ball, but with Morris taking over at OC he might open up competition completely. One young guard, Ma’ake Fifita, showed improvement throughout the year, but in 474 snaps earned a 48.5 overall grade. The other, Jarrett Kingston, was one of the team’s better blockers in pass-pro, though he might kick out to tackle.

WSU signed three tackle prospects from the 2022 cycle, and should probably take a long, hard look at anyone who jumps into the portal after spring ball.

Both Borghi and McIntosh are gone. Nakia Watson (36 carries, 114 yards) is the leading returning rusher, so there’s work to be done in spring ball there with regards to settling the position.

Calvin Jackson Jr. (66 catches, 978 yards) and Travell Harris (76 catches, 795 yards) are also gone. Those were the top two receivers for the Cougar passing game in 2021 and the second and third-leading receivers in all the Pac-12. Not easily replaceable, though the Cougars were able to hang on De’Zhaun Stribling (44 catches, 483 yards), a 6-foot-2 true freshman last season who could step right into the lead role as the starting X. WSU also brings back Lincoln Victor (22 catches, 296 yards) and should get a healthy Renard Bell back after a torn ACL cost him the 2021 season (33 catches, 337 yards in four games in 2020).

On defense, the Cougars are going to need to replace quite a bit—only 22% of total pressures return from the 2021 season along with 27.5% of total tackles—but they have potential difference-makers at a couple of key spots. Marsh (70 tackles, four pass breakups, three picks) is back for the secondary and Ron Stone Jr. (11.5 TFLs, five sacks) will return looking to build off a breakout 2021 campaign.

The defense also added transfer defenders from Nevada in linebacker Daiyan Henley (103 tackles, four picks, four pass breakups) and safety Jordan Lee (85 tackles, five TFLs, four PBUs, three forced fumbles). Lee recently told CougFan.com’s Jamey Vinnick he believes “we really can win the Pac-12” in 2022.

What’s on the schedule

  • vs. Idaho (Sept. 3)
  • at Wisconsin (Sept. 10)
  • vs. Colorado State (Sept. 17)
  • vs. Oregon (Sept. 24)
  • vs. Cal (Oct. 1)
  • at USC (Oct. 8)
  • at Oregon State (Oct. 15)
  • vs. Utah (Oct. 29)
  • at Stanford (Nov. 5)
  • vs. Arizona State (Nov. 12)
  • at Arizona (Nov. 19)
  • vs. Washington (Nov. 26)

Lordy is that schedule front-loaded. In the first eight games of the season, Washington State will play the best team in the Big Ten West, the reigning Pac-12 North champs, the reigning Pac-12 South champs, and the biggest threat to the champs in the South. Cal is no slouch, and potentially a trap sandwiched between Oregon and USC.  In Corvallis right before a bye week is another potentially sticky spot.

Washington State will need to start fast. Ward will have only one game to get adjusted before he has to travel to one of the tougher places to play in all of college football and face one of the toughest defenses in football.

But, if the North hasn’t been set too far out of reach over the first eight, the four-game run to close the season could be when the Cougars make their charge. Catch Oregon early and the Apple Cup might be a fun one.

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • USC (Wednesday, Feb. 9)
  • UCLA ( Sunday, Feb. 13)
  • Oregon State (Wednesday, March 2)
  • Cal (Sunday, March 6)
  • Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
  • Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 20)