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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State mailbag: What to make of the second-half defense in Corvallis, and how can the Cougars contain Oregon’s run game?

A bit of trivia before we jump into this week’s mailbag.

In the 1910s and 1920s, it wasn’t uncommon for Washington State – often playing six- or seven-game seasons – to carry an undefeated record into November. Of course, with expanded schedules it’s rare now and something that’s happened at WSU just once since 1930, when Babe Hollingbery’s Cougars lost to Alabama in the Rose Bowl after a 9-0 start.

Without consulting the record books, when else were the Cougars unbeaten going into November and which Pac-12 team broke the streak?

(I can’t offer a cash prize, but let me know @TheoLawson_SR and I’ll retweet the correct answer.)

Now, onto the mailbag.

Curious, in your opinion, did the defense fail to make adjustments in the second half in Corvallis or was it a natural regression from playing very well in the first half?

- Austin M.

I’m sure defensive coordinator Jake Dickert would like to have much of the second half back, including just about all of the fourth quarter, but I also don’t believe this is a defense capable of consistently holding opponents to seven points in a half as the Cougars did through the first 30 minutes at Reser Stadium.

“Just a lot of mental things,” linebacker Jahad Woods said, speaking about the errors in the second half. “It was more us than them, so just cleaning up – having gap integrity, just a lot of self-inflicted wounds that we’ve got to clean up.”

I’m not sure if the first quarter or the fourth quarter was a more accurate reflection of the defense we’ll see the rest of the season, but if the Cougars fall somewhere in the middle, I think the coaching staff would be happy and the fans would be ecstatic.

From my view, there were a few factors. Jermar Jefferson is a rare breed of running back who seems to get better as the game goes on, whereas others will fade and lose stamina. As WSU’s defenders grew tired, tackling the powerful OSU junior became more of a challenge, and Jefferson was easily at his best in the fourth quarter. Tristan Gebbia also had a wretched start to the game, but the Beavers’ quarterback, similar to WSU counterpart Jayden de Laura, seemed to grow more comfortable as the game went on.

Although we haven’t heard this directly from coaches or players, my guess is WSU’s defense wore down a fair amount. The Cougars rotated players through the defensive line without much trouble, but they were missing three players from the two-deep at positions where the depth isn’t strong as is.

The Cougars won’t be holding opponents to 14 points this season, as they were on pace to do after the first half Saturday, but it’s also important to recognize the progress of a unit that allowed more than 28 points in eight of its final 10 games in 2019.

What adjustments will the defense be making to surprise Oregon’s run game?

- Rick F.

Containing Oregon’s rushing attack probably doesn’t come down to throwing something at the Ducks they haven’t seen before, but rather making the routine plays that prevent CJ Verdell from turning a 10-yard run into a 20-yard run, or making the shoestring tackle that prevents a 30-yard run from becoming a 50-yard touchdown run.

OSU’s Jefferson provides many of his own challenges, but with his physical, run-between-the-tackles approach there aren’t be as many opportunities to create explosive plays. Oregon’s Verdell is more of a feast-or-famine tailback. In 2019, there were 11 games in which he rushed for fewer than 100 yards, but in each of the three games he hit triple digits, he totaled at least 170. For the folks reading this mailbag, one of those probably sticks out from the others.

Verdell and No. 2 running back Travis Dye are more slippery and shifty than Jefferson, so it’ll be key for WSU’s linemen and linebackers to make the plays that come to them. The Cougars didn’t last season and lost to the Ducks, not necessarily because of a winning field goal, but because they whiffed on a few dozen tackles before then or just weren’t in position to make them.

I generally think Dickert’s 4-3 defense gives the Cougars better opportunities to stop the run. Wyoming ranked 11th nationally in that category last season, allowing 107.1 yards per game. Jefferson had a big game, but WSU still held OSU to 122 yards on the night. If the Cougars can hold the Ducks under 200, make the fundamental plays when Verdell has the ball in his hands and force first-year starting QB Tyler Shough to throw on what could be a cold, soupy afternoon in Pullman, the defense should cut down drastically on the 558 yards of total offense it conceded in Eugene a year ago.

Of the 30 or so players who weren’t in Corvallis Saturday, which ones do you think we’ll see back playing and any you think will have a big impact?

- Timothy

During his Monday availability, Rolovich seemed to think at least a few of the missing players would be available against Oregon. I’d probably have a better chance of predicting how many yards the Cougars will pass for than guessing who those players are. Not unlike the last regime, Rolovich prefers to keep these things close to the vest. With closed practices, it’s hard to draw any clues.

So instead, I’ll name the players I think would be most helpful to WSU’s effort: Travion Brown, Tyrese Ross, Chad Davis Jr. and Phillip Powell.

WSU’s safety group was depleted in Corvallis. While Ayden Hector and Daniel Isom played relatively well – save for Isom’s slip that led to an OSU touchdown – I’m sure the Cougars would like the flexibility of rotating players in and out of the secondary when they feel it’s necessary. Hector may have played his way into the lineup, but Ross and Davis emerged ahead of him after fall camp, and Powell is the team’s most experienced safety.

As for Brown, it’s unclear why the middle linebacker is absent, but he’s a major asset when it comes to stopping the run, with more size and strength than Justus Rogers. At this point, Rogers is a better bet in pass coverage, but Brown supposedly had an incredible offseason in the weight room and I’m curious to see how it translates to the field. Something tells me we’ll have to wait, though.

Given the noise surrounding the City of Berkeley’s contact tracing and quarantine protocols, do we know what Pullman/Whitman County/WSU’s protocols and definitions are in the event a player or coach tests positive or has close contact with someone positive?

- Ryan W.

I don’t know the specifics when it comes to Whitman County protocols, but I do know no county in the Pac-12 is enforcing contact tracing/quarantine as strictly Berkeley’s Alameda County.

The Cougars recently had an active COVID-19 case yet still managed to play the Pac-12 opener in Corvallis. It’s unclear how many other players, if any, were held out of the game for contact tracing, but we can say with some certainty if Whitman County adhered to the same protocols as Berkeley, Cougs-Beavers would’ve been scrubbed.

A single Cal defensive lineman tested positive, placing the rest of the position group in quarantine for the next 14 days. Even if a position mate recorded 13 consecutive negative tests, he’d have to record a 14th negative before being cleared.

If, for example, a WSU player or coach tested positive on Tuesday, I’d guess his close contacts would be under quarantine for two or three days, then cleared after registering multiple negative tests.

Understand if you don’t want to touch this, but I’d be curious of your perspective on Rolovich and his staff’s general adherence to COVID protocols. Rolovich seemed pretty callous in his presser the other day when asked about players being out. Does he not care or was it just a bad answer?

- Lucas M.

You’re right, I’d prefer not to touch this one, so how about I just graze it with a fingernail?

In the few instances Rolovich has been asked about COVID-19 issues specific to his own team – i.e. Saturday’s postgame presser and Monday’s Zoom availability – he’s generally stayed clear. Given that WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun has been the one reporting the department’s COVID-19 numbers since athletes returned to camps in July and is generally better suited to answer those questions, it seems Rolovich would rather defer. That’s totally understandable.

Granted, when the coach reported his team had 32 players unavailable for Saturday’s game, the natural follow-up was, “Were any of those COVID-19-related?”

Chun delivered a COVID-19 update during his appearance on the pregame show, reporting five athletes had tested positive since the Pac-12 introduced daily antigen testing more than a month ago.

I won’t speak for other media members, but between the pregame notes I typically write, the photos/videos I snap to share with Twitter followers, the multiple trips I take down to the field from the press box, the conversations I have on the sideline or in the box, there’s little time to listen to the pregame show (no offense to the brilliant Matt Chazanow).

Another key point: Most of Chun’s other COVID-19 testing updates have come via Zoom news conferences.

Even if I had been aware of Chun’s latest COVID-19 report, the question is still a fair one, given one additional athlete had tested positive since his prior update in October. We now know that was a football player, so at least one of those 32 was unavailable due to COVID-19, and others could’ve been held out for contact tracing.

From my vantage point, WSU’s football team has done a fairly exceptional job of adhering to COVID-19 protocols, avoiding risky situations away from the field and staying clear of the spike after Halloween.

The five positive tests come from three sports – football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball – so it could be that only one is connected to Rolovich’s team. I only make this comparison because UW’s latest testing update just came out. The Huskies reported 13 “active” cases within the athletic department.

I didn’t answer your question, but I hope this helps anyway.