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Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Washington State football game for 2023

Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series concludes today with a preview of Washington State.

Already covered: Arizona | Arizona State | Cal | Colorado | Oregon | Oregon State | Stanford | UCLA | USC | Utah | Washington

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Like Oregon State, Washington State enters the 2023 football season standing on a cliff, high above choppy waters.

The Cougars and Beavers are 2 of the 4 teams left standing in the Pac-4, forced to play out the round with 8 league mates who have already left for greener pastures. Stanford and Cal? They might find a soft landing in the ACC, or another one of the remaining Power conferences, while OSU and WSU twist in the wind.

Unlike the Beavers, Washington State kicks off the year hoping to stave off a regression as it replaces both coordinators, just 1 year into the Jake Dickert era. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris is gone; defensive coordinator Brian Ward, too. It’s back to the drawing board a bit for the Cougs.

Entering the 2022 season, all the Apple State transfer quarterback hype was squarely on Ward, who lit up the scoreboard for Incarnate Word for 2 years be heading to the PNW, and not on Indiana-to-Washington transfer Michael Penix Jr.

Then the season started, and Penix flipped the script. In the first month of the 2022 campaign, Penix had almost 1,400 passing yards and 12 scores with 1 interception, while Ward had 1,102 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5 picks. For the year, Ward had 3,231 yards with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions after he tossed 71 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions in 2 years at IWU, including 47 scores with 10 picks in 2021.

He’ll have a tough time doing too much damage this year with Wazzu losing its top 4 receivers.

Washington State’s defense was solid across the board last year, but particularly in impact plays. The Cougars ranked 2nd in the conference in red-zone defense, 3rd in opponent’s 3rd-down conversion rate, tied for 3rd in interceptions, 4th in sacks and 4th in pass defense efficiency. Most important, they allowed just 22.92 points per game, 3rd in the league.

But defensive coordinator Brian Ward is gone, off to Arizona Stat to serve in the same capacity, and Dickert turned the defense over to Schmedding, who came over from Auburn but has deep ties to the PNW.

Schmedding will be tasked with keeping the unit in the upper echelon of the conference, and he’ll have a pair of star pass-rushers in Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. to help aid his effort.

Dickert’s response to the shocking disbanding of the Pac-12 was a master class in leadership.

“I understand business, I understand change. Everyone’s gotta change and everyone has to adapt,” Dickert told the media after the Pac-12 dwindled to 4. “Wazzu will find its way. We have for 100-some years and we will again. … I want to double down on this team. Our coaching staff, these players, we’ve poured everything we possibly have into these guys. I wanna give them every ounce of everything I possibly have.”

While it’s easy to pity the Cougars because of the position they’re in, there is also a certain freedom that comes from being left at the altar. If Dickert can strike the right chord all year, Wazzu might find a way to rally.

Colorado State was putrid on offense in head coach Jay Norvell’s debut season, scoring just 13.2 points a game last year. But the defense? Not bad, after allowing just 19.9 points per game. If the offense turns it on a bit this year, the Rams could be the most improved Mountain West team. Washington State should get a little test early but will prevail. Ward probably won’t light it up, however.

Luke Fickell went just 4-8 in his debut season at Cincinnati before turning the Bearcats into an elite Group of 5 program. I’m guessing he has a bit of a better introduction with Wisky. The Badgers will be thirsty for retribution after Wazzu won in Madison last year, 17-14, even if their quarterback, Tanner Mordecai, is a new addition from SMU. He had 72 touchdowns the past 2 years with the Mustangs.

He’ll have 300 yards and 3 scores against the Cougars to spoil their home opener.

Surprisingly, Ward only topped the 300-yard mark 4 times last year. This will be the first time he truly lets loose in 2023. Former Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb, who went 45-47 in 8 years with the Thunderbirds, gets his 2nd head coaching gig with the Big Sky’s Bears. Ward will make the former BYU associate head coach wish he stayed in Provo 1 more year.

Let’s call this one the Bye-Bye Bowl. Both the Cougars and Beavers are facing the unenviable position of becoming college football nomads, and this year carries with it an almost depressed resignation. But there is also plenty of potential for both teams to tap into that emotional well. Unfortunately for WSU, Oregon State’s offseason addition of Clemson transfer QB DJ Uiagalelei is a game-changer. Against a good Cougars defense, DJU will step up and prove why the Beavers got him.

The Bruins should have already broken in 5-star QB Dante Moore a long time ago by now, so he should be settled in quite nicely. With both teams coming off a Week 5 bye, they will both be rested and ready to get into the thick of conference play. Unfortunately for Ward, the UCLA tandem of Pac-12 defensive player of the year candidates, Laiatu Latu and Darius Muasau, will be looking to tee off. This is also going to be a big game for transfer running back Carson Steele.

Ward was at his dual-threat best last year against the Wildcats in a revenge game for the Cougars, who wanted to give it to former quarterback Jayden de Laura. Ward completed 25-of-36 passes for 193 yards and a score and ran for a season-high 59 yards and a score in the 31-20 win. Arizona is a team on the ascent this year, though, and I believe de Laura will hand it back.

After giving away last year’s game, the Cougars will be motivated to exact a measure of revenge. Wazzu led 34-22 with 6:42 left last year, but Oregon reeled off 3 touchdowns in a 167-second span. That kind of defeat tends to stick with you. It could be a clarion call for the Cougars, but for the Ducks’ mighty offense. Expecting Bo Nix to pick up where he left off last year, he’ll have a huge game once again (450 yards of total offense and at least 3 TDs).

With Sun Devils new coach Kenny Dillingham turning to a true freshman QB in Jaden Rashada for the 2nd time in 5 years (Jayden Daniels), it presents a prime opportunity for the Cougars to get on a roll. Rashada will be the 1st of 3 consecutive games against untested quarterbacks, the perfect time for the Cougars to get right after 3 straight losses. I like Ward to heat back up in Tempe.

For the 2nd week in a row, Washington State plays a team in a state of flux. This time, new Cardinal coach Troy Taylor brings his innovative offense to the Palouse. Stanford has holes all over the field, at just about every position. It’s going to be even worse than last year, when the Cougars demolished the Cardinal 52-14.

This is a tough call, because I expect both programs to be pretty downtrodden at this point. Cal has some nice defensive pieces, but its offense needs a ton of work. New offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has his work cut out for him. The Cougars rolled up the Bears last year 28-9 behind 343 yards from Ward. I expect a similar outcome this year.

Coach Prime and the new-look Buffaloes roll into Pullman for the late season matchup facing 1 of 2 scenarios. By Week 12, the almost entirely new roster may have bonded and actually put their upgraded talent to good use. Or Colorado and its painfully thin depth might have already been exposed. I’m leaning toward the Buffaloes pulling off the surprise upset in after a big game from QB Shedeur Sanders.

The emotion in this game will be as thick as the cold air on a wet Seattle day. The Huskies will be looking to solidify a spot in the Pac-12 title game and maybe even a College Football Playoff berth. They return the key pieces to a thrilling passing game that was among the nation’s elite last year. It’s tempting to go with Wazzu playing the spoiler, but Washington has too much firepower for the Cougars to overcome.

Washington State has somewhat quietly turned itself into a quite competent program. The Cougars have made it to a bowl game in 8 of their past 9 full seasons, averaging more than 7 wins per season in that span.

But facing the weight of uncertainty and a roster that lost several key pieces, I’m not so optimistic on the Cougs this year.

If Dickert manages to galvanize Washington State under a common cause, the Cougars could very well win 7 games once again. But it’s going to be an uphill climb, and I don’t think they have the depth to get there.