PULLMAN – Before the season began, Washington State was ruled as the most experienced team in the Pac-12, and, as a byproduct of that, the Cougars were also supposed to be one the most elite because they returned a cast of players who had started more games than anyone else in the conference.
More than midway through the year, the Cougars are still elite, but it isn’t necessarily because they’ve been buoyed by their juniors and seniors.
The heroes of this season were supposed to be named Falk, O’Connell, Pelluer and Mata’afa. And while some configuration of that quartet has helped WSU in each of its seven wins, the Cougars certainly would not be in this position – bowl-eligible for the third straight year, ranked No. 15 nationally, in the midst of a Pac-12 North race and still on the fringe of the College Football Playoff discussion – without a youth movement that spawned at some point along the way.
WSU’s underclassmen have been coming out of the woodwork to help the Cougars match their best start to a season in 14 years and in Saturday’s 28-0 rout of Colorado, a handful of them decided to put on the cape. Their names? You would’ve hardly recognized them a month ago: Martin, Arconado, Woods and Rogers.
None of those four were considered among the best at their position when WSU opened the season almost two months ago. Brandon Arconado, an inside receiver, and Justus Rogers, a middle linebacker, hadn’t been penciled into the two-deep when the Cougars debuted against Montana State, and Jahad Woods was only primed to be a reserve until both of WSU’s MLBs were shelved with injuries.
Tay Martin was buried behind two of his elders at the “X” receiver position, and Arconado at one point was an afterthought – “We were kind of looking at other guys,” coach Mike Leach said, admitting the Cougars should’ve paid closer attention to the walk-on – who wasn’t supposed to be on the field, let alone in the end zone this season.
“I put in the work,” said Arconado, who caught Luke Falk’s 18-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. “It was going to happen.”
The 19-year-old Martin anchored the “X” receiver on Saturday night and came down with four catches for 78 yards and his first career TD, while Woods and Rogers, both redshirt freshmen who’ve been thrust into starting roles, finished second and third respectively on WSU’s tackle chart and combined for 15. Jalen Thompson, a sophomore, led all Cougars with 10.
WSU’s youngsters aren’t wandering around the field aimlessly, though it would be hard to blame them for that considering most at this point last year were either on the Cougars bench spending their redshirts, or logging their final games in a high school uniform.
Saturday, the rookies on the defensive side of the ball were tasked with powering down Colorado’s decorated senior running back, Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay has made a life’s work of blasting through arm tackles, pummeling over defenders and chugging for extra yards when you think you’ve got him stopped. Statistically speaking, he’s the most productive offensive player in CU history, but merely making it to the second level was a major feat for Lindsay on Saturday night. He gained just 98 yards on the ground and was touchdown-less for the first time this season.
The Cougars kept Lindsay in check and held the Buffs under 100 yards in the air with five underclassmen starting on defense. Cornerback Marcus Strong and defensive end Derek Moore joined Woods, Rogers and Thompson. WSU pitched its second shutout of the season and held the Buffs to 174 yards of offense, 137 yards fewer than their previous season-low against Washington.
The Cougars woke up to see they were ranked No. 7 in the country in total defense (274 yards per game allowed).
“The opportunities that we had to take the field … some sudden changes and some short fields at some points in the game, it’s a credit to those guys,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “… Just their resiliency in those moments, just an utter lack of frustration or wide-eyed at all when they’re asked to respond to some of those things. It’s hard to do what the kids did tonight.”
In all, the Cougars started eight underclassmen – three on offense, five on defense – and a total of 16 got their name on the stat sheet Saturday night.
Few would’ve anticipated this sudden youth movement from the league’s most veteran team, but boy has it been timely.