PULLMAN – Nearly two weeks shy of their 2018 opener at Wyoming, the Washington State Cougars returned to Martin Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the second scrimmage of the preseason camp. Here are five reactions, with some additional notes, from the midday mock game.
1. Grooming Gardner
The Cougars haven’t named a starting quarterback after 13 practices, but Gardner Minshew separated himself from Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon during the first scrimmage, then got the largest share of reps in the skeleton and 11-on-11 periods in each of the next six practices. On Saturday, Mike Leach let Minshew operate three offensive drives, while Gordon, Tinsley and Cammon Cooper each had two.
Minshew got through the scrimmage without any major errors, finishing 13 of 18 with 123 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. Tinsley, who seems to be his top challenger at this point, was 6 for 10 with 52 yards and three TDs, but the redshirt junior let the ball slip out of his throwing hand on consecutive passing attempts during his second drive. The defense jumped on the first fumble, but Tinsley was able to pounce on the second. Gordon was 6 of 11 with 86 yards and three TDs, while Cooper was 8 of 12 with 77 yards, one TD and one interception.
“That’s the biggest difficulty we’ve had, is all three are pretty similar,” Leach said. “And with less experience with us, Gardner’s coming along rapidly and he’s right there with the other two. So I definitely want to know what he can do with more reps, which that’s why we gave him more reps this week.
“The other thing is, I think he does a great job controlling and elevating the unit and getting those guys all hyped up.”
2. Reason for concern
The kickers aren’t exactly instilling confidence in Cougar nation 13 days ahead of the season opener. Redshirt sophomore Jack Crane and redshirt freshman Blake Mazza have been getting equal opportunity to prove they can succeed Erik Powell, who missed just four field goals on 24 attempts last season. By comparison, Crane and Mazza, with a much smaller sample size, have already missed six kicks in the two scrimmages. After each going 2 for 3 on Aug. 10, they combined to make just 3 of 7 on Saturday. Mazza made two, from 35 and 42 yards, and hit two, from 37 and 45. Crane was good from 33 yards out, but couldn’t convert from 43 and 47.
3. Dynamic duo
Running backs James Williams and Max Borghi combined for 98 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, offering another glimpse of how dynamic they could be as a backfield tandem this season. The shifty Williams led WSU on the ground, with three carries for 25 yards and two touchdowns. Supposedly, the junior tailback is barred from hurdling defenders this season, but he lifted his body over Darrien Molton as the corner was diving for his legs near the sideline and squeezed out another 5 yards. Borghi caught one touchdown pass, hauling in a ball from Tinsley near the sideline before chugging around the right side for a 17-yard score, and punched in another TD on the ground. The Colorado native continues to be one of the most physically imposing skill players on this roster and it probably needs no reminder, but he’s just 18.
“Max is special, he really is,” Minshew said. “Just his strength, speed, understanding of the game. Lot of freshmen come in, the game’s fast, they’re wide-eyed. Nah, he knows what to do and he’s going to do it really well.”
4. Growing pains
The Cougars have a number of true freshmen who will see the field this year: Borghi and Rodrick Fisher on offense, Tyrese Ross and Halid Djibril on defense, to name a few. But the vast majority will need the obligatory redshirt year to improve their strength and physical conditioning, and to adjust to the college game. Offensive line coach Mason Miller was particularly vocal when two breakdowns up front led to consecutive QB sacks on Cooper. Freshman tackle Cade Beresford was yanked from the O-line and redshirt sophomore Liam Ryan took his place. Leach ended the drive prematurely, visibly frustrated by the group’s execution.
“I thought our third group was on offense … it was atrocious,” Leach said. “They just didn’t play together, played timid. I would say, I don’t know how many for sure, but it looked like nine out of the 11 out there looked timid with the third group and they better get used to playing because they’re going to do it virtually every Thursday.”
Through two scrimmages, it’s not Tay Martin, Jamire Calvin, Kyle Sweet, Renard Bell or Dezmon Patmon leading the Cougars in receiver touchdowns. It’s Brandon Arconado. The redshirt junior, who came to WSU as a walk-on and earned a scholarship this spring, is up to four touchdown catches in two mock games. His first on Saturday may have been the highlight of the scrimmage. Under pressure, Tinsley blindly aired a ball toward the end zone and Arconado stumbled back a few steps before cradling the pass into his arms.
- Luke Falk’s No. 4 is up for grabs again. Bell inherited the number this offseason, but the redshirt sophomore receiver has apparently parted ways with it after just two weeks. One of a few Cougars to undergo recent number changes, Bell is back to the No. 81 he wore last season as a redshirt freshman when he caught 40 passes for 538 yards and three touchdowns. Other notable number changes: freshman safety Tyrese Ross (No. 6 to No. 1), sophomore corner George Hicks III (No. 8 to No. 18), Rush linebacker Willie Taylor III (No. 57 to No. 27), freshman Nickel Patrick Nunn (No. 22 to No. 32), redshirt sophomore kicker Jack Crane (No. 42 to No. 33), freshman receiver Brandon Gray (No. 83 to No. 84) and junior receiver (No. 89 to No. 86).
- Kyle Sweet, the top receiver in yardage with 78, hauled in two touchdowns and was on the end of a 50-yarder thrown by Tinsley in which he outlegged corner Makiah Gilmer to get open before catching the ball in stride and racing into the end zone.
- Even if he doesn’t crack the rotation this year, true freshman receiver Kassidy Woods appears as if he’ll have a bright future with the Cougars. Woods hauled in two passes for 41 yards and scored a touchdown.
- The Cougars are progressively getting better at defending the red zone and it showed again. That’s where WSU recorded its only interception, on Cooper, and forced its only fumble, on Keith Harrington. “When you pressure people, you make people make plays,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “It’s one-on-ones and who wins and they got to block them. It’s not just like a coach calling a play and you’re sitting back in the zone.”
- Wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. didn’t participate in the scrimmage, nor did linebacker Peyton Pelluer. Defensive players Nnamdi Oguayo and Derek Moore weren’t in attendance.
- There was a good turnout for the second scrimmage, which fell two days before the start of the academic semester at WSU. An estimated 100 fans and students showed up.
- WSU will hold a short practice Sunday at 8 p.m., take Monday off, then return for a fully padded, full-length practice Tuesday. Every practice from Wednesday through the rest of the season will be closed to media and the general public.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.