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Washington State Football Offensive Preview
Cal will face another tough offense: an Air Raid scheme led by a very talented dual-threat quarterback.
I like Washington State. I have no problem rooting for them now that they’ve moved on from professional victim/coach Nick Rolovich and quarterback Jayden de Laura. Washington State coach Jake Dickert and Incarnate Word transfer quarterback Cameron Ward have proven to be upgrades at their respective positions. The Washington State offensive coordinator is Eric Morris, a former Texas Tech wide receiver who learned the Air Raid under coach Mike Leach, and then rejoined Leach as his receivers coach at Washington State back in 2012. Morris went on to eventually become the head coach at Incarnate Word, and came along with his quarterback Cam Ward as the new Wazzu offensive coordinator for Dickert. In short, Washington State runs a version of Leach’s Air Raid, and it’s a system that Cam Ward is already very familiar with (and some of the Wazzu receivers probably are too, like Renard Bell).
Despite all this, I’d probably credit Washington State’s new defense for the surprisingly strong play to start the year (an upset over 17.5-point favorites Wisconsin, and taking Oregon down to the wire), but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that article.
But this is the offensive preview! So let’s get to it.
Although Jayden de Laura has left for Arizona (you may have heard of him, say, last week), the current Washington State quarterback resembles him in many ways (on the field at least; by all accounts, Cam Ward is an upstanding citizen).
When the Washington State offense is clicking, it looks a lot like the first half of that Cal-Arizona game last week: the quarterback buying time in the pocket, and receivers working their way open into the soft spots of zone coverage for big completions. Washington State wants to spread the defense, force them to account for the threat of the quarterback run, and then throw to an area of the field that was vacated by the defense as a result. I realized I didn’t take many clips of such plays, because although credit is due for the play design, it usually doesn’t make for highlight reel plays— it’s just Cam Ward finding his open receiver, again and again.
But that’s when all goes according to plan. Like de Laura, Cam Ward loves to improvise, and he does it again and again. Ward is extremely athletic, very evasive in the pocket, very difficult to bring down, and yet he still has the arm to punish you downfield:
Really, this is an incredible throw. Like de Laura, he throws it off-balance on the run, but it’s still thrown with impressive velocity and touch right over double coverage. It’s the type of play that shows you that if Cam Ward is in rhythm, he is unstoppable.
This is going to be unintentionally high praise, but I feel like his closest pro comparison is Lamar Jackson: the effortless arm strength, the speed, the ability to hurt you on his feet. He wasn’t recruited much coming out of high school, but as a transfer from Incarnate Word, he was ranked only behind Caleb Williams (OU → USC), Jaxson Dart (USC → Ole Miss), and Quinn Ewers (OSU → Texas) — that is, quarterbacks that were 5-star recruits coming out of high school (and Lane Kiffin tried recruiting Ward to Ole Miss, for that matter). However, the constant hype and praise he's getting from announcers and analysts all over has me pushing back against that narrative a bit: he's going, but he's not THAT good.
Cam Ward has a ton of mobility in the pocket and can easily create his own yards:
But the main point of this section should be to note that Cam Ward loves improvising. He’s a great improvisor. His ability to go off-script frequently causes defenses to break down:
It should be noted, however, that there’s a very thin line between “wow, how did he do that?” and “wow, what was he thinking?” It really can go either way. Here, Ward gets tripped up, but still manages to dive forward and throw the shovel pass to his running back for a first down:
On the other hand, here Ward survives pressure, but makes an ill-advised throw across his body into coverage for an interception:
Here, Ward corrals the unexpected snap, scoops it up and runs it himself for a critical late game first down:
But on the flip side, here Ward buys time in the pocket, and again makes an ill-advised throw into coverage:
I really have to hammer this point in, because it’s clearly a theme of the way Cam Ward plays. It’s almost as if Ward is allergic to sacks. He’s extremely hard to bring down, and he does a fantastic job of evading pressure, staying upright, and still doing something with the ball… but sometimes, the best thing you can do is to eat the sack and live to see another down. Ward hates sacks.
Here Ward is a bit too cavalier with ball security as he attempts to escape the pocket:
Ward has been “sacked” on paper a number of times, but a non-negligible number of those sacks are basically intentional grounding. Although the following play wasn’t ruled intentional grounding, he did this a lot: Ward is about to get sacked, and Ward will just throw the ball literally anywhere:
Even when there’s no real reason to fight the sack (like when your team is up 31-0), Ward will still try to get rid of the ball in these situations:
When Ward has time to throw, and the plays are executed the way they were drawn up, Wazzu will carve up the opposing defense. When Ward is under pressure and improvising, it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll turn in a ridiculous positive play or a head-scratching negative one.
As an Air Raid offense, Wazzu eschews the traditional run play, and currently ranks last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, so I won’t spend too much time here. Wazzu is led by the Wisconsin transfer RB Nakia Watson, a standard power running-style back:
Of course, the running back is still the safety valve on most pass plays here, so it’s important that the running back has good hands as well. Watson is a viable receiving threat, with the fourth most receiving yards on the team:
The latter half of the 1-2 punch is the true freshman running back, Jaylen Jenkins. Jenkins is a 5’8 177 lbs. running back consisting of pure speed:
I don’t have enough highlights of him yet, but I am sure he’s going to post some homeruns later in the season when he gets a chance (preferably after the Cal game).
Again, he’s also a receiving threat out of the backfield:
Jenkins shows a ton of promise, but I am not sure how much we will see of the Wazzu run game.
Honestly, it’s hard to choose highlights for the Washington State receivers, because the Wazzu gameplan consists of finding the open receiver in space, spreading the field with safe passes (like bubble screens, quick slants, etc), and because Wazzu spreads the ball amongst their receivers so well. The starting X and Z receivers, De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, have around 20 catches each, while 4 more players have around ~10 catches each. They’re not a team that will lean heavily on any one receiver.
Their most experienced receiver is the speedy 6th year slot receiver, Renard Bell:
Renard Bell is old enough to remember first year head coach Justin Wilcox dismantling Leach’s #8 ranked Cougs 37-3 back in 2017.
On the outside, Ward will have a pair of 6’3” receivers, De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie. Both are tall, rangy, sure-handed receivers— I don’t believe either receiver has posted a drop this season. Here Stribling effortlessly makes the catch over the smaller CSU defensive back:
And here Ollie gets hit to disrupt the pass, lands on his back, and makes the catch anyway:
One notable thing about Morris’s Air Raid is that they use tight ends a lot more than Leach ever would. Here North Dakota transfer tight end Billy Riviere III beats the safety to get open down the sideline:
This one isn’t really an offensive highlight, but I chose this clip to highlight how much I love the 5’9” slot receiver Lincoln Victor’s effort. Victor is always fighting and never gives up on a play. Here he smells an inferior UC degree, and promptly blasts the intercepting player to get Wazzu the ball right back after the turnover:
Finally, there’s an undersized (5’8”, 173 lbs) slot receiver that Ward has a ton of chemistry with: his former teammate at Incarnate Word, Robert Ferrel. As you could probably infer, Ferrel’s primary strength is his speed:
But Ferrel also plays with a chip on his shoulder, and is fearless when making a catch in traffic or one where he knows he’ll get blasted by the defense. Despite the big hits he’s taken, I don’t believe he’s dropped a pass either.
That is to say, Ward will have plenty of viable options when deciding where to spread the ball.
Coach Wilcox has shown a mastery of shutting down Air Raid offenses in the past, but conversely, a weakness against dual-threat quarterbacks. Quarterback Cam Ward’s ability to run will likely complicate defensive efforts in the same way they did last week in the first half of the Arizona game (against Jayden de Laura), but hopefully Cal will be better prepared to handle the challenges that the Wazzu offense will pose this week. If Cal can generate pressure on Ward, they can likely coerce him into making mistakes, but too much time in the pocket will result in Ward picking apart the Cal secondary. The Washington State offensive will pose schematic challenges that Cal is generally adept at handling (whereas Cal might not have answers to players that can out-talent them). I’m expecting this to be another close, hard-fought game.
You can find my full clips here.