Cameron Ward finds his footing, guides Washington State to blowout win over Colorado State

Sep. 2—FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Cameron Ward held his head up toward the sky after an opportunity slipped through his hands . Washington State's junior quarterback looked to the sideline, wishing he could have back the easy touchdown pass he had just missed, a real chance to start pulling away from season-opening foe Colorado State.

"You don't need to be hard on Cam," WSU head coach Jake Dickert said, "because he's hard on himself."

In the moment, if Ward was steaming at himself for missing the throw, he spent the rest of Washington State's 50-24 win over Colorado State Saturday evening showing it.

He unfurled a touchdown pass across his body. He lofted an easy scoring throw. He threw passes into tight windows and open windows, to long routes and intermediate routes, staving off reasons to get down on himself across the entirety of the game.

For Ward and the Cougars, that registers as the most encouraging part : Ward coughed up a pair of fumbles. He saw one pass nearly go for an interception. If he wanted to, he likely could have grown disappointed, frustrated in how his night was going.

Instead, Ward finished 37-for-49 passing for 451 yards and three touchdowns. He tossed one 50-yard completion to Lincoln Victor. He found Josh Kelly wide open for a score late in the game.

In the fourth quarter, running back Nakia Watson sprung free on a wheel route, and Ward placed the ball in his chest for another touchdown to go up 36-3.

That's why the Cougars, who have now won six of their past seven season openers, saw so much promise in Ward's showing. The touchdowns are nice. Watching him throw them after he fumbled is even better.

"He showed signs of being able to respond, and that's what you want to see," said WSU wide receiver Lincoln Victor, who had 11 catches for 168 yards in the win. "That's what you want to play for, with a quarterback like that — someone who's gonna be calm under pressure.

"I don't think he ever hit the panic button. He just made corrections, and we found solutions. The plays ended up the way they should have."

For Ward, so much around him was new in this win. New stadium. New offensive coordinator. New receivers. New offensive linemen. The Cougars spent untold amounts of time, in fall camp and beyond, working out the kinks in their new system — but there's no way to accurately simulate how it will all mesh on game day.

It didn't all go swimmingly, for Ward or the rest of the offense.

On WSU's first drive , Ward spotted transfer receiver DT Sheffield across the middle on a deep ball, but he overthrew him. Then he did the same to Riviere. Late in the first quarter, Ward was stepping up in the pocket when he lost the ball. Did a teammate accidentally knock it loose? Did he lose it trying to switch hands? That much was unclear, but the reality was the Cougars were leaving points on the board.

That developed into a theme of the first half.

Immediately after Ward overthrew Riviere in the end zone, the Cougars faced a fourth-and-goal from the Rams' 3. They elected to hand it off to Watson, who was stuffed, a turnover on downs that threatened to turn the momentum.

Washington State's defense had plenty to do with keeping that on the visitors' side, particularly thanks to a pick-six from sophomore safety Jaden Hicks, but the Cougars' offense just kept scoring. Watson did on the receiving touchdown, but between him and backup running back Jaylen Jenkins, WSU's rushing attack sputtered for the most part.

For that, don't blame Ward, the Cougars' leading rusher . He registered 13 carries for 40 yards and one touchdown, a 1-yard quarterback sneak that WSU used to open the scoring. Ward doesn't profile as much of a dual-threat, at least not based on last year, his debut season in Pullman: For the year, he recorded 107 carries for 58 yards and five touchdowns.

He nearly eclipsed that rushing yards total in one game. He did much of that damage by scrambling at the right times, spotting when the Rams' secondary was blanketing his receivers and deciding to take off, but WSU offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle also drew up a designed QB run or two.

For Ward, if there's an evolution to make, it might be becoming a real threat to run. He's plenty athletic, so that's not the issue. He just owns a strong arm, and he prefers to use it to sit back and pass. If he can blossom into a running threat, the kind that defenses respect when the Cougars' running backs can't find lanes, WSU's offense might look even more potent than it did against the Rams.

"We do want to run the quarterback, but I don't want him to be our leading rusher," Dickert said. "I really don't, ever again, but I think they were doing some things schematically."

"That dude has grown numbers from last year, just in his morals, his values, his leadership skills," Victor said of Ward. "But yeah, big boy was running for his life over there, but had to give it to him. He made plays when he needed to.

"I think that's what makes Cam Ward Cam Ward. Nobody else can do that. He takes what he wants with his arm, takes what the defense gives him, and then last second, he's gotta make a play, he can do with his feet as well."

Ward, though, was throwing touchdowns to extend WSU's lead, not come back. For that, he has his defense to thank.

The leader was Hicks, the guy who seems to be everywhere all at once for Washington State. He snared one interception last year. He matched that total in one game by leaping in front of Colorado State wide receiver Dylan Goffney, grabbing the pass and bolting 37 yards the other way.

"I was eyes on the man," Hicks said, "looked up last second, just right at my face. So I put my hands up, caught it and then just seeing the open grass, it felt good just running into the end zone."

Hicks said he was surprised that the pass seemed to come right to him:

"Definitely," he said. "It was some heat on the ball, so it was really surprising."

Hicks and the Cougars can take solace in knowing so many of his teammates played similarly well.

Redshirt sophomore safety Jackson Lataimua also secured his own interception. Those amounted to the only turnovers WSU's defense forced, but considering one went for a touchdown, that's an amount the Cougars can live with .

What they can also live with is how they responded early on. On their first drive of the game, the Rams moved the ball with overwhelming ease. Running back Avery Morrow totaled 12 yards in two runs. Quarterback Clay Millen connected with receiver Justus Ross-Simmons for 16 yards. Later in the drive, he found Ross-Simmons again, this time for 15 yards.

Except that's when WSU's defense stiffened. Safety Sam Lockett III brought Morrow down for no gain. Then the Rams committed a false start. Linebackers Kyle Thornton and Devin Richardson combined to tackle Morrow for a 1-yard gain, and after Millen misfired on third down, CSU had to settle for a field goal.

During their next six drives, the Rams collected a combined 34 yards on 19 plays. In that stretch, Washington State opened up a 17-3 lead, capped by a career-long 56-yard field goal from kicker Dean Janikowski, who split the uprights as time expired on the first half.

Ward took care of the rest. He wasn't perfect, but he worked around his mistakes, displaying the mettle he'll need this fall.

It's a good way for Washington State to enter next weekend's home showdown with No. 19 Wisconsin.

"We have an opportunity on a national stage to show who we are," Dickert said. "With everything that's been going on, we have an amazing opportunity to show what the Cougs are about. Now, that'll be the atmosphere.

"Our job as a football program is to narrow that scope, because there'll be plenty of distractions."