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Washington State rewind: Another opponent primed for weekly Pac-12 honor after torturing Cougars

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 27, 2019

EUGENE – In a post-Oregon edition of the Washington State rewind, we revisit CJ Verdell’s big night against the Cougars, Tay Martin’s emergence – or rather, re-emergence – at the “X” receiver spot and where Wazzu’s postseason hopes stand in the wake of a 37-35 loss to the Ducks Saturday night in Eugene.

Grounded

When the Pac-12 announces its weekly awards on Monday, Oregon’s CJ Verdell will almost surely be the recipient of the conference’s Offensive Player of the Week honor. The Ducks sophomore ran rampant in Eugene, totaling 23 carries, 257 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

It was the top rushing game by a Duck in Autzen Stadium history and Verdell’s 89-yard scoring run in the first half was the longest rushing touchdown by an Oregon player since the 2012 Rose Bowl. Verdell also had four receptions for 56 yards.

On Sept. 23, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was named the Offensive Player of the Week after he set a school record for total offense (564 yards) and accounted for seven touchdowns in a 67-63 win over the Cougars.

Seven days later, the award went to Utah’s Tyler Huntley, who totaled four touchdowns – two passing and two rushing – in a 38-13 win over the Cougars in Salt Lake City. He had 365 total yards of offense in the game.

The Cougars were on a bye the following week, but two days after their next game at Arizona State, the Sun Devils’ Brandon Aiyuk got an OPOW nod, catching seven passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns.

So, presuming Verdell is honored Monday, four of WSU’s last five opponents – everyone except Colorado – produced the league’s player of the week after a game against the Cougars.

“I mean, they were able to move the ball and it’s tough that it happened at ASU and … we just kept fighting and that’s all we can do,” WSU nickel Armani Marsh said Saturday night. “We just gotta get back to work, and we will.”

It’s concerning that the Cougars aren’t formulating adequate game plans for the opponent’s top players, but also that they aren’t making the proper in-game adjustments to cut the head off the snake, so to speak.

Often, taking away one thing opens something else up. Had the Cougars been able to bottle up Verdell, perhaps it would’ve created more opportunities for Justin Herbert in the passing game. If they’d spent more energy covering Aiyuk, it’s possible that running back Eno Benjamin would’ve had more production.

But, in their four Pac-12 losses, the Cougars have now given up 180 points – or 45 per game – so something should change if they expect better results down the home stretch of the 2019 season.

Martin emerges

In the same podcast that Connor Halliday alleged there was tension between members of WSU’s defensive staff – something Leach and others have since denied – the ex-Cougar quarterback also claimed outside receiver Tay Martin was in “the doghouse,” perhaps explaining why the junior hadn’t contributed since the loss to UCLA.

The supposed feuds between defensive assistants and Tracy Claeys seemed a little more far-fetched, but the relationship between Leach and Martin has been a somewhat tenuous one. In fall camp, the WSU coach excused the receiver from practice drills and sent him to “muscle beach,” the area usually designated for injured players.

Martin still played well enough in the preseason to earn a spot in the “X” receiver rotation alongside Rodrick Fisher and he recorded 20 grabs through the first four games. But Martin disappeared in the next game at Utah, making just one catch, and he fell out of the rotation against Arizona State, playing mostly on special teams as Calvin Jackson Jr. took over at “X.”

Though he caught a touchdown pass a week ago against Colorado, Martin’s other three grabs went for minus-6 yards. So, coming into Saturday’s game in Eugene, the Louisiana native had four catches for -2 yards and a touchdown.

But he got back into a groove against the Ducks, hauling in two passes for 59 yards and Martin’s late 48-yard catch-and-run was what set the Cougars up with their go-ahead touchdown when there was a minute left.

“That was huge,” fellow receiver Brandon Arconado said. “I told him I’m gonna need a big play from you this drive, and he was like, ‘I got you,’ so he ran across the middle caught that and took it downfield for, what’d you say, 40 yards? Yeah that was big. It was good seeing him back out there.”

“I mean Tay, you guys have seen Tay throughout his time here,” quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “He’s athletic and dynamic and one of the most talented receivers I’ve ever seen, so when he puts it together, when he’s playing fast he’s hard to stop, so it was great to see him get his feet under him tonight and have a great catch like that.”

Final four

At 4-4 overall and 1-3 in conference play, the Cougars need to close out the season with a 2-2 record at minimum in order to extend their bowl streak – already a program record – to five years.

How feasible is that? I suspect WSU will be favored to win at least two of their four remaining, but most likely three of them.

A few months ago, oddsmakers likely would’ve taken Cal to beat the Cougars in Berekely, but the Golden Bears have stumbled into some major problems at the quarterback position and starter Chase Garbers isn’t expected to be back anytime soon. Cal’s scored 41 combined points in four straight losses and didn’t get on the board against Utah. Both teams have byes coming up and will enter the Nov. 9 game with identical records.

Stanford comes to Pullman on Nov. 16 and much like their Bay Area neighbors, the Cardinal have been hobbled by QB injuries, though they were much more competent on offense with K.J. Costello back under center on Saturday and edged out Arizona, 41-31. Costello, a top-three QB in the conference, makes Stanford dangerous but the Cardinal have struggled on defense and it’s unlikely they’ll be a favorite to beat the Cougars in a cold-weather game in the middle of November.

If WSU can grab a win in either of those two games, the Cougars will be vying for their bowl bid a week later against Oregon State on Senior Day at Martin Stadium. The Beavers have a few weapons on offense, but they’ve never been able to slow the Air Raid, allowing 46 ppg in the last five meetings, and the Cougars will almost surely be two-touchdown favorites in their home finale.

Ideally, the Cougars can alleviate the pressure on themselves and reach the six-win barrier prior to the Nov. 29 rivalry game against Washington, but then again, what’s an Apple Cup without high stakes?

The three bowl games that would be in play for a six- or seven-win WSU team would most likely be the Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21), the Phoenix-based Cheez-It Bowl (Dec. 27) or the El Paso-based Sun Bowl (Dec. 31).

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