Apple Cup notebook: Three Washington State starters could return from injuries

Nov. 23—PULLMAN — Three injured starters could return to the field this weekend to aid Washington State in its defense of the Apple Cup.

Veteran slot receiver Renard Bell is a "game-time decision" for Saturday night's matchup against 12th-ranked Washington, according to Cougars coach Jake Dickert. Bell was sidelined for four weeks due to an arm injury, then re-entered the lineup last weekend against Arizona before exiting in the third quarter. He appeared to reaggravate his injury.

Safety Jordan Lee has been practicing throughout the week and should be back in action after missing the past three games.

Right guard Ma'ake Fifita, who sustained an ankle injury versus Stanford on Nov. 5, might not be fully recovered by Saturday, but it's possible he'll see reps in an "emergency" situation, Dickert noted.

The three players would boost WSU's odds of retaining the Apple Cup versus a significantly improved Huskies team that is still alive for a berth to the Pac-12 title game.

Bell, a seventh-year senior, adds a big-play threat to WSU's passing game, which will be facing a Washington defense that ranks 10th in the Pac-12 and 114th nationally in pass-defense efficiency.

If Fifita is out, the Cougars (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) will call on sophomore Quinn McCarthy to make his second-career start. He fared well last weekend in WSU's 31-20 win over Arizona — WSU's O-line gave up just one sack — but the UW defensive line will offer a greater challenge . The Huskies (9-2, 6-2) rank third in the Pac-12 with 29 sacks.

"Their success comes up front," Dickert said of UW's defense. "Their D-line has been the strength of that group and they'll rely on them heavily Saturday."

The Cougars' secondary will take on its toughest test of the year against a UW passing game that leads the country with 3,869 yards. WSU's defensive backfield, despite issues with depth, is playing commendably.

But Lee's return would provide a much-needed boost for the shorthanded position group, which has relied on five players — safeties Jaden Hicks and Sam Lockett III; cornerbacks Chau Smith-Wade and Derrick Langford Jr.; and nickel Armani Marsh — to shoulder the bulk of the workload in recent weeks.

WSU isn't rotating its DBs. That's partly because the five starters have been too reliable to replace. It's also because the backups haven't been dependable enough to sub in.

"It's a little bit of both," Dickert said. "We gotta get to the point where (reserve CB Cam Lampkin plays). We gotta get J. Lee back and these (backups) gotta come in and take 15 reps. We gotta be confident to go out there and do it. They can do it. I've seen them do it. This will probably be the week where we have to do it."

Lee captured the starting job at strong safety during the preseason. He went down with an injury in Week 2 at Wisconsin and missed the next three games, then reclaimed his first-team duties for two weeks before sustaining another injury.

Lee and Bell will participate in senior night celebrations Saturday.

Dickert talks senior class

Thirteen Cougars will be honored before kickoff. Four — Bell, Marsh, offensive tackle Jarrett Kingston and defensive tackle Christian Mejia — spent their entire collegiate careers in Pullman, staying committed to the program through two coaching changes.

"Those guys, really since the moment I've been here, have been tremendous guys who have been the foundation," said Dickert, the team's first-year coach.

Four other seniors — Lee, linebacker Daiyan Henley, receiver Robert Ferrel and guard Grant Stephens — are wrapping up their first and only seasons at WSU after transferring into the program this offseason.

"It's important not to get lost that it is senior week and not just the Apple Cup," Dickert said. "Thirteen guys that have really been the cornerstones of our program. Some just got here. Some made it through the whole time. ... There's a lot of playmakers in that group and a lot of guys who have given a lot of blood, sweat and tears to our program"

Kingston and backup offensive tackle Jack Wilson are listed as redshirt juniors on WSU's roster. Kingston, WSU's most talented offensive lineman who suffered a season-ending injury against Stanford, is considering moving on to the professional level. Kingston had been one of the highest-graded tackles in the Pac-12, per Pro Football Focus, before his injury.

"We'd absolutely love to have Jarrett back," Dickert said. "I think he's looking at taking an opportunity at the next level that we fully support. I don't think any decision has been completely finalized ... but I want them walking if they don't know. Jarrett absolutely deserves this opportunity. Whatever happens after the season, he'll make that decision and what's best for him and we'll be involved and excited for him."

Wilson is in his third season with WSU's football program after spending two years as a Division I basketball player, first at Oregon State and then at Idaho. In 2020, the NCAA granted athletes an extra season of eligibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Wilson's additional year didn't cover football.

Dickert asked the seniors to speak to the team this weekend to share "their experiences and give them advice for the future."

"It gets me emotional thinking about it," Dickert said. "Those guys just have a lot of wisdom about our place and what it takes, and some of the things they say in those moments, our guys never forget

."

Henley addresses accomplishments

Henley was named a finalist on Tuesday for the Butkus Award, which recognizes the nation's top linebacker. He is the first player in WSU program history to be tabbed a Butkus Award finalist. Henley accepted an invite earlier this week to the Reese's Senior Bowl, a showcase game for future pros that will be held on Feb. 6 in Mobile, Alabama.

"It's big for me, personally, because it's not something ... I set out to do," Henley said Wednesday of his accolades. "I set out to play good football and it's something that came with it. I'm extremely happy and blessed that it's come my way.

"Being the first Coug to get this far (for the Butkus Award), it's extremely exciting to be this close and I'm glad I'm doing it for the Cougs and doing it for the community. I got a team that's backing me up, that's helping me get this far. Beyond that, my community back home — it's big for us, as well. To be a kid out of L.A., the Crenshaw district, Crenshaw High, to get an accomplish like this or be this close, it's amazing."

Henley ranks second in the Pac-12 in tackles (102) and tackles for loss (12) ahead of his Apple Cup debut.

Henley was at his most entertaining during Wednesday's news conference as he answered questions about facing UW for the first time.

"They say, 'If there's smoke in the air, do you run from it or go toward it?' This team has shown we're going toward the smoke. We're ready for the smoke," he said. "You can feel the vibrations in practice. You can feel them in the locker room. ... I can't wait to be on the field with my boys, because I just know the energy is gonna be different

."

WSU emphasizes the deep ball

The Cougars' Air Raid passing game often relies on screen passes and quick throws over the middle or toward the sidelines. Dickert wants to see more attempts down the field.

Over the past three games — all double-digit wins — quarterback Cameron Ward completed 4 of 19 passes for 82 yards on attempts that traveled 15 or more yards through the air.

"We have to (record) a better percentage when we take the ball down the field," Dickert said. "I think we were 1 of 5 last week. We did a better job of trying to expand the field. We missed a couple of opportunities, just with some late pressures, that we felt were there. We gotta hit on some explosive plays down the field. The run game has been effective, if not efficient, and I think that has opened up some opportunities to do it."

Dickert noted some passes against Arizona were tossed out bounds when they could have resulted in big gains. He's looking for Ward to take more chances and give his receivers opportunities in one-on-one matchups.

"We threw a couple to (De'Zhaun Stribling) where they were out of bounds," Dickert said. "Let's let him go make those plays."

Stribling shifted back to outside receiver last week. He played in the slot over the past four games in place of Bell.

WSU's ground game has provided a lift for the Cougar offense since starting tailback Nakia Watson returned from an injury earlier this month. The junior is still working his way back to full health, but he rushed for 338 yards and five touchdowns on 51 carries (6.6 yards per try) over the past three games.

"Just not feeling sorry for myself," Watson said Wednesday when asked about his bounce-back. "This late in the season, everybody has aches and injuries, even the man across from you. ... You just gotta engrave it into your head that you gotta be tough every day."

The Cougars' offense started quickly and finished slowly in its past two games, totaling 49 points and 535 yards in the first halves against Arizona State and Arizona, and managing 175 yards and three points in the second halves. WSU led 28-0 at halftime against the Sun Devils and held off a late ASU surge for a 28-18 win. The Cougars led the Wildcats 21-6 at halftime and coasted to the finish behind four second-half interceptions, including a pick-6 in the third quarter.

"I think it's just being more conservative in the second half," Ward said Tuesday. "I don't like playing that way.

"I talked to (offensive coordinator Eric Morris) and coach Dickert about it. I don't think we have a reason to play conservative when we have two more games left in the season."