Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: First Look At The Washington State Cougars

Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: First Look At The Washington State Cougars

Bowl Season

Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: First Look At The Washington State Cougars

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Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl: First Look at the Washington State Cougars


Fresno State won’t want to look past unpredictable Washington State. Here’s our first look at how the Cougars got back to bowl season.


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Cougin’ it up in SoCal?

The Fresno State Bulldogs will close out the 2022 season with an appearance in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on December 17, where they will battle the Pac-12’s Washington State Cougars. The two teams haven’t squared off since 1994, but they share unique history because legendary head coach Jim Sweeney led both programs for a time. In the present, it could also be a quality matchup between opposing strengths.

So what should Bulldogs fans expect when they prepare for the game? Here is our first look at Washington State.

2022 Washington State Cougars — Team Profile

Conference: Pac-12

2020 Record: 7-5 (4-5 Pac-12)

SP+ ranking: 36th (77th offense, 18th defense)

FEI ranking: 32nd

Sagarin rating: 33rd

Head coach: Jake Dickert (second year, 10-8 overall)

2022 in a nutshell: After the chaos of COVID-19 and the struggles of the Nick Rolovich regime to manage it, head coach Jake Dickert could’ve been forgiven if a slow reload was in order to help get things back on track in Pullman. After righting the ship enough to earn a Sun Bowl bid in 2021, however, the Cougars brought in offensive coordinator Eric Morris and quarterback Cameron Ward from FCS Incarnate Word to try and do even more this year.

Interestingly, however, the Cougars defense ended up doing much of the heavy lifting. Considering Dickert’s background as a defensive coordinator — you may recall he served under Craig Bohl at Wyoming from 2017 to 2019 — this may not be wholly surprising.

Best wins: at Wisconsin (6-6), at Arizona (5-7), vs. Idaho (7-5 in FCS)

Key Players

QB Cameron Ward

One of the highest-profile athletes to make the jump from FCS to FBS in the revamped transfer portal, Ward continued to flash plenty of what made him a Walter Payton Award finalist last year. Among Pac-12 quarterbacks, only Washington’s Michael Penix averaged more than Ward’s 38.8 attempts per game in 2022, and the West Columbia, Texas native finished with a 64.1% completion rate, 3,094 passing yards, and 23 touchdowns against an interception rate of 1.7%.

RB Nakia Watson

Like many of his predecessors at the position, Watson got things done for the Cougars on the ground and through the passing game. He led Wazzu with 736 rushing yards on 130 attempts and finished fourth on the team with 29 receptions totaling another 290 yards, but it was his 12 touchdowns that made the most impact throughout the season.

LB Kyle Thornton

One of Washington State’s biggest transfer portal successes came from former Nevada linebacker Daiyan Henley, who led the Cougars in tackles and tackles for loss while finishing second in sacks. Unfortunately for Wazzu, Henley opted out of the bowl game, which will put Thornton, one of the team’s primary backups, in a big spot.

The former preferred walk-on has certainly paid his dues, contributing first on special teams in 2020 before earning a scholarship the following year and playing 207 total snaps to date this season. He’s racked up 31 tackles and one tackle for loss in part-time duty, but chances are how well he acclimates to a starting role will figure heavily in the Cougars’ outlook.

CB Chau Smith-Wade

After getting his first career start in last year’s Sun Bowl, Smith-Wade stepped up in his sophomore campaign and looks like a cornerstone of the Cougars defense for the next couple years. He was the only Wazzu defender to reach ten passes defended in 2022 (two interceptions, eight pass breakups) and picked up 44 total tackles as well as three forced fumbles.

DE Brennan Jackson

Jackson, a redshirt junior, had his best season yet for the Cougars this fall, earning a second-team all-Pac 12 nod after finishing in a tie for fifth among conference defenders with 11 tackles for loss. He also finished the regular season with 39 total tackles, five sacks, and two pass breakups and could be tough to deal with coming off the edge.

Overview:

Offense

After importing the likes of Ward and Morris and accounting for the return of long-time wide receiver Renald Bell from injury that wiped out his 2021, it would’ve been easy to envision this Washington State team as an exciting-if-flawed squad capable of lighting up scoreboards. They did, but not as consistently as expected.

The Cougars did improve their output from the prior year, but the offense’s 2.38 points per drive ranked just 55th among all FBS teams and its 48.8% available yards percentage earned per drive is 52nd. Ward had just 34 pass plays of 20 or more yards; by way of comparison, Fresno State’s Jake Haener had 39 such plays on 151 fewer pass attempts.

They did, however, finish drives with points on the whole: Wazzu led the Pac-12 with a 91.49% red zone conversion rate and finished second with a touchdown rate of 72.34% inside the 20-yard line. Ward did a nice job of distributing the ball without a game-breaking WR1 at his disposal, as well: Seven different Cougars had at least 20 receptions and five of those players had at least two receiving touchdowns.

However, there’s one extra wrinkle that Washington State will need to navigate heading into the game: Transfer portal departures. Starting wide receivers DeZhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, who combined for 94 catches, 1,093 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns in 2022, are just two of a number of Cougars to have left the program following the conclusion of the regular season. That will put the spotlight instead on others like Robert Ferrel (46 catches, 517 yards, four touchdowns), former Hawaii transfer Lincoln Victor (21 catches, 216 yards), and true freshman Leyton Smithson (27 catches, 217 yards, one TD) to step up against a stingy Fresno State secondary.

Taken in tandem with significant injuries to the likes of all-conference offensive tackle Jarrett Kingston and the veteran Bell, Wazzu won’t quite play with the same hand they’d been dealt throughout the fall in this game.

Defense

If you watched a lot of Washington State football under Mike Leach, you know that the defense was sometimes an afterthought of sorts. This wasn’t the case under Dickert, however: The Cougars improved their sack rate from 4.2% to 6.3% while holding steady in terms of points per drive allowed at 1.93, good enough to rank 40th among FBS defenses.

Henley, Chau-Wade, and Jackson were the headliners, but they had plenty of help. On the defensive line, fellow veteran Ron Stone Jr. led the way with 14 quarterback hurries to go along with four tackles for loss and two sacks, while safety Jaden Hicks earned an honorable mention as the Pac-12’s freshman of the year after posting 69 tackles, four pass breakups, and an interception. Hicks was the young talent in a secondary that also included nickelback Armani Marsh (60 tackles, five PBUs, one INT) and cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. (33 tackles, six PBUs, two INTs).

As on offense, though, the transfer portal has already reshaped the starting eleven we’ll see later this month: Linebackers Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown have left the program, too, in addition to Henley’s opt-out. In all, however, the Cougars should be well-prepared to give Fresno State’s powerful offense a fight.

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