Just for the sake of clarity, Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich was asked what he meant last Sunday when, fresh off a 38-13 loss to USC in a game that saw the Cougars at one point trail 35-0, told a group of reporters, “The problem is if USC beats us twice, that’s what we can’t let happen.”
No, there isn’t some 2020 scheduling peculiarity that would pit the Cougars against the Trojans again this football season, and if the Pac-12 rotations return to normal next year it’s possible WSU won’t be able to exact revenge on USC until 2022.
It’s an expression often used by coaches who fear the aftereffects of one loss will bleed into the next game. Some could argue WSU’s 67-63 loss to UCLA last season – a game that saw the Cougars lead by as many 32 points – created a domino effect from which Mike Leach’s team never truly recovered and was a contributing factor to the Cougars losing seven of their next 10 games.
“If this loss is not mended up before we begin preparation for Cal, this loss could carry over and beat us twice,” Rolovich said. “That’s our job, or my job, as a coach right now.”
Fortunately, Sunday’s loss won’t have long-term implications one way or the other for the Cougars, whose season will end on Dec. 19, but they would still like to cash in on their next two opportunities and finish the truncated 2020 season with a winning record.
At least one of those opportunities will come at home, as WSU (1-2) hosts Pac-12 North foe Cal (1-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday on Fox. The Cougars and Golden Bears have played 76 times since 1919 but never in December, and Saturday’s game marks WSU’s latest regular-season game since Dec. 25, 1929.
Players have indicated the morale in the locker room this week hasn’t been reflective of a team that got embarrassed in Los Angeles.
One of them guaranteed a different result against the Golden Bears, who have won four of the past six in the series with WSU but are winless in Pullman since 2014.
“I know on the flight back (from Los Angeles) it was pretty down, we were kind of disappointed with the outcome,” left guard Jarrett Kingston said. “I just know we’re going to bounce back and we’re going to go out there and beat Cal. I just know that we’re going to bounce back really well.”
Even in a 25-point loss, the Cougars did something – and perhaps showed something – they hadn’t in the previous two games, at Oregon State and at home against Oregon. While WSU threw some early haymakers against the Beavers and the Ducks, leading at halftime in both games, the Cougars faded in the second half and especially in the fourth quarter, when they were outscored 14-10 by OSU and 22-10 by Oregon.
Admittedly, the USC team that came out for the second half played like one that was nursing a 28-point lead, but WSU’s effort was still notable and the Cougars outscored the Trojans 13-3 in the final two quarters and change. That apparently spilled into practices this week, which have been both positive and productive for a team looking to get out of a two-game slump.
“I’ve said this before, but we’re really big on attacking problems, not people,” Rolovich told play-by-play announcer Matt Chazanow on his weekly radio show. “I think that’s a good way to live and I appreciate, especially the receiver group, taking it and turning around and really having a good few days of practice. So, that’s a good sign for the character of this group.”
Most of WSU’s problems against USC were self-inflicted, but the Cougars, who’ve dealt with roster attrition since the season started, were down five of their eight rotational cornerbacks and safeties. Rolovich wouldn’t specify what sidelined a group of defensive backs that included starting corner Jaylen Watson, but WSU struggled to match up against USC’s imposing wide receivers. Perhaps because of depth issues, the Cougars’ starters didn’t get a breather until the fourth quarter with the result decided.
Jake Dickert’s defense could benefit from returning a few of those DBs and the same is true for the offense if running back Max Borghi is finally cleared to play for the first time this season. Borghi returned to practice early last week and while Rolovich has declined to say when he will return in an official capacity, the running back has suggested on social media he’ll play this season and the Cougars have just one date left after this one.
“He’s progressing, he’s progressing,” Rolovich said. “He’s out there all week, I think he’s another guy that loves football. … Just him being out there, I think, raises everyone.”
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