We’ll begin with a qualifier: It probably isn’t worth drawing too many conclusions, if any, from Washington State’s four-game 2020 football season.
We follow that up telling you that’s precisely what we’ve done in this 2,000-word piece breaking down five topics from Nick Rolovich’s debut “season” as WSU’s head coach.
While spring camp, fall camp and the 2021 fall campaign should give us much more to discuss, we’ll dive into what we know – or rather, what we think we know – about the Cougars after one pandemic-shortened season.
1. WSU (probably) has its QB of the future
By just about every measure, Jayden de Laura’s first two games as WSU’s starting quarterback were much stronger than his final two. The true freshman completed 43 of 72 (59.7%) passes for 548 yards, four touchdowns and one interception while being sacked just twice against Oregon State and Oregon. De Laura’s completion percentage was slightly better over the last two games, as he completed 35 of 57 (61.4%) passes against USC and Utah, but he regressed in other categories, throwing for 338 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and six sacks.
After rushing for 43 yards in his debut, de Laura’s net rushing totals in the final three games were 11, minus-17 and minus-3. He also fumbled twice in the final two games.
The first half of de Laura’s rookie season offered glimpses of his potential, while the second half reaffirmed he was still a freshman capable of making freshman mistakes.
It’s also difficult to grade de Laura’s season without factoring his positive COVID-19 test, which kept him away from team activities for at least one week right in the heart of WSU’s season. There may be no correlation, but it’s probably worth mentioning his best games came before that and his worst ones were after it.
De Laura’s final two statements of the season weren’t strong enough to convince coaches not to reopen the QB battle this spring. Rolovich indicated on his radio show last week that redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper displayed progression in the run-and-shoot offense.
“Camm’s making some big strides, doing some things,” Rolovich said. “I think he’s finding himself in the offense.”
Even then, it’s hard to picture a scenario in which WSU pivots from de Laura as its starting QB in 2021. Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz flip-flopped as the team’s No. 2, which could be a sign that neither was consistent enough to secure the backup job, and that neither was prepared to unseat de Laura. Cooper and Cruz combined to lead a long touchdown drive in mop-up time at USC, but Cooper’s play in the second half at Utah, which saw him complete 2 of 5 passes and take a 2-yard loss on a run play, was probably more indicative of where the Cougars are at the backup spot.
For competition’s sake, all three QBs – if all three are still at WSU – will be given opportunities during spring camp, but it’s hard to envision someone other than de Laura at the wheel in 2021.
2. The defense showed life, but not nearly enough
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert wanted WSU’s defense to make strides in three main categories: rushing defense, red-zone defense and explosive plays. The sample size isn’t nearly large enough, but we can say with some certainty the Cougars got better in at least two of those areas.
In 2019, WSU’s defense allowed 185 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per rushing attempts. In four games this season, opponents rushed for 154 yards per game and 5.0 yards per attempt.
The conference’s top rusher, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson, totaled 120 yards against the Cougars before rushing for 133, 196 and 226 yards in his next three games. Jefferson’s 5.7 yards per attempt against WSU were lower than his season average of 6.5.
The Cougars weren’t any better in the red zone, allowing the opposition to score points on 16 of 18 (89%) trips.
In 2019, opponents scored points on 41 of 48 (85%) trips into the red zone and scored a touchdown on 33 of those 48 (69%) trips. While Dickert’s defense was rarely able to stymie teams from scoring once they got to the red zone, the fact they were getting there 4.5 times per game, as opposed to 3.6 last year, may be a product of tougher defense played between the 20-yard lines. Teams had to piece together long drives to score on the Cougars, rather than reeling off big, back-breaking plays. Speaking of those back-breaking plays …
College football teams don’t keep track of chunk plays or explosives, but with the small sample size this season we were able to quickly identify the 15-yard-plus run plays and 20-yard-plus (our measure of “explosive plays” for this exercise) pass plays the Cougars allowed.
On just eight occasions, the opponent reeled off a run of 15 yards or longer. Fifteen times, opponents completed a pass of 20 yards or longer, for a total of 23 explosive plays conceded.
We don’t have a tally of the explosives given up by WSU in 2019, but we can say with certainty the Cougars allowed more than 5.7 per game. In games against Stanford and Oregon State, WSU conceded 19 explosives alone, and those such plays also tormented them against Brandon Aiyuk and Arizona State.
“The one thing I know is there wasn’t a time we didn’t play hard, especially on defense,” Rolovich said. “I think the defense was inspiring, at least for me. Maybe not for everybody else, but for me it was.
“I’ll make sure they know that.”
Entering 2021, the Cougars should feel good about the individual talent at every level of the defense. On the defensive line, edge rusher Brennan Jackson emerged as an all-conference-caliber player. In the linebacking corps, Jahad Woods reaffirmed what most already know about the fast, physical veteran, who’s expected to return next season. In the secondary, safety Ayden Hector and cornerback Jaylen Watson had moments of brilliance.
The Cougars will benefit from better depth next season, but learning how to play more cohesively will be one of the foremost challenges for Dickert’s defense after allowing 38.5 points per game in 2020.
3. WSU could have the Pac-12’s best backfield in 2021
During the first half of WSU’s final game at Utah, Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh already had WSU fans dreaming up nicknames: McBorghi, Maxintosh, Mac ’n’ Max.
With 239 rushing yards in his first two games, McIntosh showed why he can be one of the Pac-12’s best running back on a given day. Last Saturday in Salt Lake City, Borghi reaffirmed why he already was in that category entering the 2020 season.
After being sidelined the first three games of the year with a back injury, Borghi was cleared to play on Dec. 12 against Cal but made his debut in the season finale against Utah, rushing 10 times for 95 yards and a touchdown. McIntosh had eight carries for only 19 yards, but he plowed through two Utah defenders for an 11-yard touchdown that gave the Cougars a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
“(Borghi is) a great weapon and having him and Deon (McIntosh) together, that’s as solid a pair as any on our team at that position,” Rolovich said. “I think it meant a lot to him to get out there, he worked hard to get back. Patience, frustration and I think everyone got the chance to see his talent level.”
Despite a dip in his last two games, McIntosh still finished the season with 52 carries for 323 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt.
Borghi, solid in both short-yardage and open-field situations, broke off four plays that went for at least 10 yards, including a 21-yarder and 37-yarder.
“I’m happy for him,” right tackle Abraham Lucas said of Borghi. “I’m not going to say I pick one over the other in terms of Max versus Deon. We’ve got a lot of great running backs, even ones that don’t see as much time, but I’m happy we have two solid running backs that we can rely on. If Max is out, Deon’s in. If Deon’s out, Max is in. That’s a great feeling to have, knowing you’ve got two dynamic running backs in the backfield and knowing you don’t have to worry about them.”
Borghi has to choose in the next few weeks whether he’ll stay in school for his junior season or pursue the NFL. McIntosh, a fifth-year senior playing at his third school, will have to decide if he wants to stick around for year No. 6. If both players commit to the 2021 season, Borghi and McIntosh, who employ different running styles, could form the best backfield tandem in the Pac-12, and the best one at WSU in at least two decades.
4. 2020 offered glimpses of the future
While close to a dozen seniors are expected to take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility and return in 2021, the Cougars won’t hesitate to lean on a handful of players who’ll return as second-year true freshmen next season.
By virtue of transfers, injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 issues, WSU fans got more than just a glimpse of the next generation, with freshmen making an impact on offense, defense and special teams.
Seven true freshmen probably saw the most playing time in 2020:
• De Laura, QB: We touched on the starting quarterback, but the Honolulu native started in all four games, completing 78 of 129 passes (60.5%) for 886 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.
• Ayden Hector, SS: When the Cougars opened fall camp, nobody expected the former four-star recruit to be on the roster, let alone starting in the season opener at OSU. A positive COVID-19 test sidelined Hector for the finale at Utah, but in his three previous starts, the Seattle native was one of the team’s top defensive playmakers, totaling 13 tackles, with two fumble recoveries and an interception.
• Joey Hobert, WR: One of the top performers in fall camp, Hobert played a special teams role in the first two games, spelled Travell Harris as WSU’s primary kick returner in the third game at USC and saw more time at receiver in the fourth, catching three passes for 31 yards in Salt Lake City.
• Chau Smith-Wade, CB: The Chicago native seemed to be in the mix for a starting job in fall camp, but he opened the season as a backup to senior cornerback George Hicks III. Smith-Wade didn’t play in the final two games, but he was firmly part of the cornerback rotation in the first two, logging eight tackles and one tackle for loss against the Oregon schools.
• Justin Lohrenz, Gabriel Lopez and Moon Ashby, edge: With the midyear departure of Will Rodgers III and the season-ending injury sustained by Willie Taylor III, the Cougars lost two of their top four edge rushers and relied on a trio of true freshmen to solidify the rotation. Lohrenz had one tackle and one pass breakup, while Ashby was credited with a tackle and a QB hurry.
5. Travell Harris’ ceiling was higher than we knew
While Harris had the ability to demonstrate his athleticism and dynamic play-making in the Air Raid, he was often the least targeted – as many of Mike Leach’s “H” receivers were – on the field for WSU and was never put in a position to fully maximize his talent.
Rolovich identified the untapped potential and found just about every way possible to put the ball in Harris’ hands. The run-and-shoot offense gave Harris more opportunities to stretch the field vertically and he took advantage, catching 28- and 29-yard touchdown passes in the opener at OSU. Harris caught 29 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns, hitting career highs in receptions and yards per game.
In the opener, Rolovich called two run plays for Harris, who took the second on a reverse, weaved through a sea of OSU jerseys and glided into the end zone for a 44-yard rushing touchdown.
Two games later against USC, Harris was at the center of another offensive wrinkle that lined the slotback up behind center as a wildcat QB. Harris caught the snap then darted into the end zone for a short touchdown that closed WSU’s deficit to 38-6.
One of the conference’s most electric kick returners, Harris brought back eight kicks for 175 yards and an average of 21.7 yards per return, while returning one punt for 10 yards.
Rolovich and offensive coordinator Brian Smith have eight more months to brainstorm ways they can use Harris in 2021.
It’s enticing to think about what his stat line will look like after a full 12- or 13-game season in the run-and-shoot.
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