Unless the cardboard cutouts at Martin Stadium are programmed differently than those elsewhere in the country, Saturday’s game between Washington State and No. 11 Oregon won’t end the same way it did the last time the teams met on the Palouse, with tens of thousands of students and fans converging onto a football field to mob Gardner Minshew and his teammates following a euphoric 34-20 win.
The aftermath won’t look the same, but the Cougars will carry a similar objective into their 4 p.m. (Fox 28) matchup at Martin Stadium: knock off a top-15 Oregon team with a quarterback who’s still enjoying relative obscurity in his first season as WSU’s starter.
Minshew’s national profile grew after he threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns in the historic win two years ago. Jayden de Laura would probably emerge as a player to know in college football circles outside the Pacific Northwest and Pac-12 if he’s able to lead the Cougars to consecutive wins in games they entered as underdogs.
WSU beat Oregon State 38-28 after coming in as a 3.5-point underdog. The reigning Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champion Ducks, coming off a decisive 35-14 win over Stanford, are favored by seven.
Like it was last week, getting to the stadium with at least 53 scholarship players, including seven offensive linemen, one quarterback and four defensive linemen – minimum thresholds mandated by the Pac-12 for teams to play this season – will be a conquest of its own, especially after games between California and Arizona State, and UCLA and Utah were canceled because of COVID-19.
“I think they just want to play again, that’s what I think,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “It is home, of course they would want all their fans there and their families and stuff, but this team has a real nice focus on not letting some of the outside stuff get in their head and distract them from why they come to the building every day.”
The Cougars have had at least one positive COVID-19 test in the past two weeks. Even if others were held out for contact tracing, Rolovich was still able to field a competitive football team in Corvallis and became the first WSU coach since Warren Powers to win a coaching debut on the road.
“We had a pretty real conversation before Halloween weekend,” Rolovich said. “We knew where our numbers were as far as guys available to play and if we brought a lot of COVID into this place, there was a possibility it could shut us down. I like the commitment this team made to each other.”
Even with shortened rotations and four players missing from the two-deep, the Cougars raced out to a three-touchdown lead at Reser Stadium before holding on in the fourth quarter.
Rolovich anticipates WSU will be closer to full strength Saturday. In that sense, they could be better off than Oregon, which won’t have Freshman All-American Verone McKinley in the first half after the safety was ejected from the Stanford game because of a targeting call. The Ducks are expected to play without tight ends Spencer Webb, Cam McCormick and Hunter Kampmoyer, as well as defensive tackle Popo Aumavae.
The Cougars are hoping the run-and-shoot adds an element of surprise this season, especially for Pac-12 foes who’ve never seen it. The Ducks haven’t encountered the offense. While their second-year defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos, has squared off with Rolovich in the Mountain West, when Avalos was at Boise State and Rolovich was at Nevada and Hawaii, the WSU coach wasn’t using the run-and-shoot at the time.
“No. 1, you got to handle the run game first,” Avalos told local reporters on a Zoom call earlier in the week. “Within the run-and-shoot and the pass game, they play all 53 yards of that field; they’re going to spread you out and they’re going to use all the green grass. We got to do a really good job with our coverages and understanding our leverage and how we’re playing our techniques.”
De Laura is on Oregon’s radar, as well. The Ducks recruit in Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands, largely because of pipelines built by former WSU defensive line coach Joe Salave’a. The WSU quarterback comes from the same high school, Honolulu’s Saint Louis, that produced ex-Oregon Heisman Trophy winning QB Marcus Mariota.
It’ll be hard for de Laura to reach the heights Mariota did in college, but the WSU QB had a more productive high school career, going 23-0 as a starter for the Crusaders while winning consecutive state championships, and earned a start as a true freshman whereas Mariota had to wait one year.
“I’ve recruited Hawaii and I’ve seen him play in person, in high school and things like that,” Avalos said. “So, it’s not surprising. He’s an excellent football player. Jayden, he’s got an extremely good arm, he’s accurate and he is obviously very mobile.
“He’s got a presence to him that he had in high school and you can watch him in pregame warmups and you can see that presence. From the start of the game through, he’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s a very good football player.”
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