CORVALLIS, Ore. – From day one, he was speaking their language.
Now, 300 days after he was hired at Washington State, Nick Rolovich will try to build their trust.
So far, the 41-year-old has made all the right moves since arriving in Pullman earlier this year.
Midway through his introductory news conference at Martin Stadium, Rolovich was already talking Apple Cup, and ever since he’s engaged in rivalry banter with Washington fans on social media, gaining approval points with every tweet.
Months later, when the economy crashed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rolovich dug into his pockets to support a variety of local Pullman restaurants and establishments that needed a financial and spiritual lift.
Some were critical of how he handled a midsummer phone call with former WSU receiver Kassidy Woods, but in hindsight it felt more like a minor dust-up than a crucial error. The coach’s likability reached another level when he donned a Portland Thorns jersey bearing the name and number of beloved former WSU soccer star Morgan Weaver during a preseason scrimmage.
Yes, Rolovich has nailed the first impressions up to this point. None of them matter as much as the next one.
It could’ve easily been more than a full calendar year before the coach put on his first headset at WSU, but thanks to advancements in COVID-19 testing that allowed the Pacific-12 Conference to get back on the field earlier than anticipated, the Cougars will get to open the Rolovich era at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Oregon State.
Even that still feels somewhat tentative, with two other Pac-12 games – Washington at California and Arizona at Utah – getting canceled because of COVID-19.
Presuming the Cougars and the Beavers make it to Reser Stadium without any last-minute hiccups, Rolovich has a fairly good sense of what he’ll see from his team when it steps onto the field in Corvallis. In other ways, he still has no idea.
“Credit to them, our players, credit to probably every college football player out there for what they’ve endured this year to get to game week,” Rolovich said. “I think this team likes to play, likes to be on the football field together. I can’t guarantee any wins, but I can guarantee that we’ll fight, and that gives us a chance.”
The Cougars have been favored in every game they’ve played against the Beavers since 2015, and enter Saturday’s contest with a six-game win streak against OSU. But the margin of victory tightened last season when Mike Leach’s team needed a late touchdown from running back Max Borghi to emerge with a 54-53 win. Oddsmakers aren’t as confident in the Cougars this time around, choosing the Beavers as a three-point favorite.
According to the Oregonian, if the line holds, it’ll mark the first time OSU has been favored in a conference game since 2016 against Arizona. Since then, the Beavers have been an underdog in 28 consecutive Pac-12 games.
It might not have as much to do with Vegas bettors losing faith in the Cougars, and more that they just don’t know what to make of them. The Beavers are in a similar position.
“You learn some new things first game,” OSU coach Jonathan Smith said. “Just like, we’re going to run a couple of plays we haven’t run before. So it’s always the first game, a little bit of nerves with that, exactly what you’re going to get, you’ve got to be able to read and adjust.”
WSU is introducing a first-year starter at quarterback in true freshman Jayden de Laura. OSU is relatively inexperienced at the position as well, with Tristan Gebbia winning the starting role during preseason camp. It’ll help de Laura that he’s flanked by a Preseason All-Pac-12 running back in Borghi, but the same is true for Gebbia, who’ll be able to lean on junior Jermar Jefferson – a 2,000-yard rusher in his first two seasons with the Beavers.
On paper, the Cougars have more talent at the wide receiver positions and could put the Beavers’ defensive backs under more duress in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which utilizes more of a vertical passing attack than the Air Raid did. Together, Renard Bell, Travell Harris, Jamire Calvin and Calvin Jackson Jr. have combined for 299 career receptions and 27 touchdowns.
What they lack in the defensive backfield, the Beavers make up for in the front seven. OSU might have squeezed out a victory last year in Pullman had Hamilcar Rashed Jr., arguably the league’s best pass-rusher, not been limited by a wrist injury that forced him to wear a cast on his left hand. The Cougars nearly lucked out again when Rashed initially opted out to prepare for the NFL draft, but upon the Pac-12 deciding it would return, OSU’s productive outside linebacker decided he would too.
“The rumor is he put on more weight, good weight, this offseason,” Rolovich said. “Was a disruptive force in the conference last year, has got good length, plays hard. Has a good idea of the overall defense, when he can take chances and handle his responsibilities.”
Rolovich and the Beavers have history that adds another layer to Saturday’s game. In 2018, when the WSU coach was still at Hawaii, OSU recruiting packages showed up to the Rainbow Warriors’ football facility, addressed to active UH players. Rolovich called the Beavers out publicly on social media, tweeting “My apologies for our players not being able to attend your Spring game. Ours was the same day, bad timing. Quick question, in the 203 years of coaching, none of you realized you couldn’t actively recruit another school’s players? Sent to campus? #leakydam #sloppybeavers”
Earlier this week, WSU’s coach said he harbors no hard feelings two years later, but Rolovich did engage with a Beavers fan on social media this week when someone tweeted at the Cougars coach: “Rolo’s coming to Corvallis and gonna get a horse head in his bed.”
Rolovich’s response? “What a horrible thing to say. First, beavers cause immense environmental damage with blockage of waterways leading to flooding. Not to mention the overall tree damage done. Now this? Tweet will be reported to @peta #SloppyTweet.”
Like many of the other Twitter jabs, it earned him a few more points with the WSU fan base. Still, he understands the most important impression is the one that’ll come Saturday night.