LOS ANGELES – There aren’t many Washington State players or fans who’ll want to replay the Cougars’ 38-13 loss to No. 20 USC on Sunday at the Coliseum.
Nonetheless, we’ll take on the task of doing so 24 hours later.
Sunday’s game, which at one point featured the Trojans leading 35-0, was more lopsided than the final score indicated, but the Cougars could still extract a few positives from their second loss under first-year coach Nick Rolovich. They did, after all, win the final three quarters by a three-point margin.
There will be plenty of time to dissect the negatives, but in this rewind, we explore two of the positive developments from an otherwise demoralizing loss in Los Angeles.
Cruz, Cooper impress
When Cammon Cooper signed with Washington State three years ago, many expected the four-star quarterback prospect to be playing in big games for the Cougars, such as Sunday’s cross-division contest against the unbeaten, 20th-ranked Trojans.
They just didn’t expect it to play out the way it did: as the second QB off the bench in the fourth quarter of a 25-point runaway loss.
Cooper made his long-awaited WSU debut in Los Angeles, as did Gunner Cruz, the three-star class of 2019 signee who apparently would’ve been the Cougars’ starting quarterback had the Nov. 21 game at Stanford not been canceled because of COVID-19 obstacles in Pullman.
WSU’s backups should be graded on a curve, given the nature of Sunday’s game when both entered. It was 38-6 when Cruz replaced Jayden de Laura to start the fourth quarter and, similar to the Cougars on offense, the Trojans used a handful of second- and third-stringers on defense in the final 15 minutes at the Coliseum.
Still, a team like USC usually has younger four- and five-star recruits backing up the starters, and considering the most significant snaps Cruz and Cooper have ever taken at WSU came in the Crimson & Gray Game, both played admirably during their brief collegiate debuts.
“I’m glad they weren’t scared to get in there and try to do their job,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “Seemed like it went fairly smooth with both of them. Glad both of them got in. Showed some toughness. I think they each had a pretty strong quarterback run to get a first down. I think they were waiting for their opportunity and there were some good things. I don’t remember too many incomplete passes when they were in there.”
Of their 10 combined pass attempts, there were just two incompletions. Cruz was 5 of 7 with 34 yards and a touchdown, while Cooper was 3 of 3 for 22 yards.
Cruz took the first snaps of the fourth quarter, but WSU’s drive fizzled out when he underthrew Jamire Calvin on third-and-14. On the ensuing WSU drive, Rolovich swapped his QBs four times and while Cruz threw the final pass of the drive – a 6-yard TD to Renard Bell – it wouldn’t have been possible without the first down Cooper picked up with his legs earlier in the drive, or the 10-yard pass he threw to Harris to move the chains.
It’s unlikely many WSU fans knew the name Quinn Roff before the second half of Sunday’s game. By the end of USC’s third drive of the third quarter, they probably wondered why they hadn’t seen more of the Cougars’ redshirt freshman walk-on edge.
Roff hadn’t recorded a single statistic at WSU until the midway point of the third quarter, when, during a two-play sequence, he sacked USC QB Kedon Slovis while forcing a fumble, then combined with Ahmir Crowder for a tackle-for-loss on Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai.
“So proud of him,” edge Brennan Jackson said. “He works so hard, one of those guys that’s always asking questions, always trying to get better. I expected it. He’s a great kid, got a good head on his shoulders and I think he’s going to be awesome for us. Had a great game and we’re going to see what he does from here.”
The 6-foot-2, 227-pound edge from San Marcos, California, was perhaps Sunday’s best representative of the youth movement that’s taken place at WSU in 2020 as a result of the injuries, COVID-19 absences and opt-outs that have engulfed the Cougars.
On Sunday, they were missing six players who entered the season as projected starters: running back Max Borghi, “X” receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., edge rushers Willie Taylor III and Will Rodgers III, cornerback Jaylen Watson and safety Tyrese Ross. Another set of backups, including corner LoChau Smith-Wade and safeties Chad Davis Jr. and Armauni Archie, didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles.
Rolovich wasn’t willing to detail why five members of his secondary were missing, just that they were “unavailable,” and therefore it’s unknown if any of those five will be available next week to play Cal.
The Cougars didn’t rotate much in the defensive backfield, sticking with starting corners Derrick Langford and George Hicks III, and safeties Ayden Hector and Daniel Isom until the fourth quarter. But WSU, as it has all season, used a handful of players at the edge spots and the Cougars will have to rely on three or four freshmen to back up the starters in the final two games.
Along with Roff, true freshmen Gabriel Lopez, Moon Ashby and Justin Lohrenz all got snaps on Sunday. True freshman wide receiver Joey Hobert replaced Harris as WSU’s primary kick returner and saw time at “Y” receiver in the fourth quarter, while another true freshman receiver, Jay Wilkerson, replaced Bacon at “X.”
With Oregon in the midst of a two-game slump, and Washington on the heels of an embarrassing home loss to Stanford, USC seems to be the conference’s last, best shot at earning a College Football Playoff bid.
For about one quarter against a depleted WSU team, one might argue the Trojans passed the eye test for the first time this season, but the fact they were outscored 13-10 in the final three periods probably didn’t sit well with committee members who’ll be handpicking the CFP’s four teams in a few weeks’ time.
USC had a chance to hang 50-60 points Sunday night, but effectively let up once Kedon Slovis’ fifth touchdown made it 35-0, preventing the Trojans from making the bold statement they probably needed to give themselves an outside shot of grabbing the committee’s attention. The passing game may be the bread and butter of Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense, but USC’s showing on the ground didn’t help the Trojans any either, with 20 rushing attempts going for just 34 yards.
If it beats UCLA in the regular-season finale, USC would move on to the Pac-12 championship against another unranked team from the North division – Oregon or Washington. Some have floated the idea of scrapping the USC-UCLA game so the Trojans could play unbeaten Colorado for a berth to the championship game, but the conference reportedly shut that idea down before it could gain any real traction.
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