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Analysis: With Max Borghi and 31 of his teammates missing, Washington State pulls out impressive 38-28 victory against Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Most Washington State fans knew the Cougars would be playing without Max Borghi by the time the Cougars got on a bus headed to Reser Stadium Saturday night.

Borghi, a junior running back who was recently named to the preseason All-Pac-12 First Teaim may have been WSU’s most notable absence, but he wasn’t the only one. Not even close, it turned out.

According to first-year coach Nick Rolovich, the Cougars were missing 32 players for the season opener. It made their 38-28 victory against Oregon State all the more impressive.

True freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura accounted for three touchdowns, running back Deon McIntosh was exceptional in Borghi’s absence with 147 rushing yards – the most by a WSU player in 13 years – and the Cougars’ defense showed significant strides from a season ago, shutting the Beavers out in the first quarter and only giving up seven points in the first half.

Rolovich became the first WSU coach to win a debut on the road in 43 years, as the Cougars extended their winning streak against the Beavers to seven games.

WSU was a three-point underdog heading into the season opener and those odds felt even longer when The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported Borghi would be missing the first game of his career with what The Spokesman-Review has since learned was a back injury.

Rolovich didn’t offer any further details on the injury, just that Borghi is “unavailable at the moment,” and the coach didn’t clarify how many of the other 31 absences were due to injuries or COVID-19.

“Every time something bad happens I say, ‘Good. I’m gonna handle it. We’re going to handle it,” Rolovich said. “We showed up here, I said ‘What are we going to do? Because we’re here, because we’re here boy.’ That’s why. That’s all we had to do. We had an opportunity to play a football game tonight and just getting to this moment is an incredible tribute.

“Let’s just talk about what these kids have been through to get to this point. So happy they got a chance to finish the game off in a real positive way.”

But a shorthanded team led by a young quarterback still got the job done, leading by as many as 21 points before the Beavers and All-Pac-12 running back Jermar Jefferson staged a late comeback attempt, closing the gap to 31-28. WSU all but sealed the victory when wide receiver Travell Harris took an inside handoff 44 yards to the house, giving the Cougars a 10-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

De Laura, who became the first freshman quarterback in program history to start a season opener, finished with two passing touchdowns and one more on the ground. He completed 18 of 33 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while adding an extra dimension to WSU’s ground game the Cougars never had in the Air Raid, taking eight carries 43 yards.

“What makes me happy is all the people back home on the island, watching him, cheering for him,” Rolovich said. “A little piece of each one of them – probably everyone in Hawaii – is rooting right along with that. Hopefully that brightened a lot of days in Hawaii.”

McIntosh, starring as a feature back for the first time in his career with the Cougars, averaged 8.2 yards per carry and went over the 100-yard mark for the first time since 2017, when the redshirt senior was still at Notre Dame.

It was also an electric night for Harris, who was folded into the run attack with two carries for 49 yards – the last of which saw Harris speed through a hole in OSU’s defense and walk into the end zone, where he held up the No. 26 of former teammate Bryce Beekman. Harris, who also caught two touchdowns, finished with more than 170 all-purpose yards.

“It’s for my boy Bryce,” Harris said. “Rest in peace Bryce Beekman.

OSU and running back Jermar Jefferson nearly made WSU pay for some late defensive miscues, and the junior continued his individual dominance of the Cougars, rushing for 120 yards on 21 carries with three touchdowns. In three games against WSU, the powerful tailback has scored nine times.

The Beavers’ first-year starting quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, was 34 of 48 with 329 yards and one touchdown, but most of the damage he did came in the second half when OSU was trying to erase a sizeable deficit.

WSU’s defense produced four sacks and big moments throughout the game, despite not forcing a turnover. The Cougars were missing a handful of players on that side of the ball as well, including both of the strong safeties listed on the team’s depth chart: Tyrese Ross and Chad Davis Jr. One of the players that stepped up was Ayden Hector, a true freshman walk-on, who wound up tying for the team lead in tackles with eight. Ron Stone Jr. had 1½ sacks, Ahmir Crowder and Willie Taylor III had one each and Brennan Jackson was credited with a half sack.